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Plenary II

General Assembly 2002 Event 2003

Friday Plenary Features Sinkford's President's Report on "Lifting up the Voice of Unitarian Universalism in the Public Arena"

(Québec City, QUE—June 21, 2002) Moderator Diane Olson called the second plenary of the 41st Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) General Assembly (GA) to order, reminding the delegates that the day was Canadian Aboriginal Day, a time to celebrate Canadian heritage. Olson showed the group her Raven mask, a piece of aboriginal art, which stands a symbol of the land on which this general assembly is held and a symbol of the possibilities which exist for people who explore the heritage of the land.

Olson reminded delegates that this year there will be less time for business matters, since she and the Planning Committee worked with the plenary schedule to provide meal times and a time for discussion on the financial status of Beacon Press.

Olson introduced Rev. Olivia Holmes, director of the UUA's International Relations Office, to recognize international and interfaith visitors to the Assembly. Holmes introduced the following: Rev. Austin Fitzpatrick, Vice President, and Rev. Brian Cockcroft, President of the Ministerial Fellowship, both representing the British General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches; Elizabeth Bowen, Vice President, and Mary Bennett, Executive Director, of the Canadian Unitarian Council; Wendy Schwartz, President of the European Unitarians and Universalists (EUU); Rev. Petr Dolak, minister-designate of the Prague Unitarian Church, representing the Religious Society of Czech Unitarians; Rev. Koichi Barrish and Mrs. Donni Barrish, representing the Tsubaki Grand Shrine in America; Rev. Maria Zsuzsanna Bartha and Kari Bartha, Unitarian Church of Romania; Darihun Khriam, first woman Church Vistor of the Unitarian Union of Northeast India; and Rev. Dr. Welton Gaddy, Executive Director, The Interfaith Alliance.

Holmes also noted that greetings had been sent from: Ladislav Pivec and Iva Fiserova, Religious Society of Czech Unitarians; Rev. Rebecca Siennes, President, Unitarian Universalist Church of the Philippines; Carleywell Lyngdoh, General Secretary, Unitarian Union of Northeast India; Lilian Burlaudo, UU Fellowship of Tierra del Fuego, Argentina; and Jaume de Marcos, UU Fellowship of Barcelona, Spain.

Olson then introduced UUA President William G. Sinkford, whose appearance on the stage was greeted with prolonged applause. Sinkford's speech (PDF) focused primarily on the public witness efforts of the association and pointed to the ways in which Unitarian Universalism is gaining inclusion in the press' coverage of religious perspectives on major social and ethical issues.

Gini Courter, chair of the Finance Committee, followed Sinkford with a report on the association's budget. In discussing the association's major form of revenue —contributions from UUA member congregations—she recognized the bequests of generous Unitarian Universalists (UUs) in supporting the association and welcomed Annual Program Fund Vice-Chair Joan Lund and members of the APF Continental Committee.

The UUA Board of Trustees reported on their activities. Six trustees made presentations exploring the meaning of the board's new mission statement and covenant and how these relate to the core services and role of the Association.

Young Kim, chair of the Nominating Committee, issued a report and call from the committee inviting interested individuals who wish to serve on UUA Committees to come forward and identify themselves to the Committee. Another way in which individuals serve the association is through work on board-appointed committees. Calvin Dame, Chair of the Committee on Committees, issued a report, introducing his colleagues to the delegate body and inviting those interested in being considered for service to identify themselves.

Janis Elliot, Chair of the Commission on Appraisal, introduced her colleagues: Joyce Gilbert, Charles Redd, Janice Marie Johnson, Mark Hamilton, Jim Casebolt, Linda Horton Weaver, Earl Holt, and Roberta Finkelstein. They announced that the next study of the Commission will focus on the issue of theological fragmentation of the UU movement in North America. They asked, "where is the unity in our diversity? Some have expressed the thought that not defining our core is impeding the growth of our movement." This issue will be studied over the next several years and will be followed by a report to the Association.

Moderator Olson introduced the energy break, and noted that UU youth had encouraged the inclusion of others in leading energy breaks, as they did not want to be stereotyped as the only energetic people in the Association. Accordingly, Olson invited Carolyn Lavender and Jerry Davidoff, two senior citizens who are well known to many members of the Assembly, to lead an energy break. The two, both of whom have had knee replacements, got the delegates on their feet to play a serious but entertaining game of "Simon Says."

Those gathered for the plenary sang "Love Will Guide Us," and Olson introduced Rev. Ned Wight, a member of the Board of Trustees, to moderate a one-hour segment on the history of Beacon Press and the financial challenges currently facing the press. Presentations on the Press were offered by President Bill Sinkford, Financial Advisor Larry Ladd, and Beacon Press Director Helene Atwan. Responses were offered by former UUA Financial Advisor Bob Lavender, Gini Courter, author and chair of the UUA Finance Committee, Rev. Burton Carley of the UUA Board of Trustees, and Rev. Rosemary Bray McNatt, author, former editor of the New York Times Book Review, and parish minister.

Sinkford said (PDF), "I love Beacon Press. I give the books as gifts, I read them with my children, and I am proud to be associated with Beacon Press. Beacon has published books that promote our values, but also save lives. Beacon publishes not only Cornel West, but also the Bluestreak series of books by women of color that probably would not be published in other places. But Beacon Press is a business, and it loses money. It has lost money for five of the last seven years.

"In recent years, Beacon losses have been covered by cash reserves, built from profits in the good years, and payments to Beacon for publishing our current hymnal. But the cash reserves will exhaust in this current year. So we have to have this conversation about Beacon and the mission of the Association, because from now on, the Beacon losses will have to be covered by reductions in other parts of the Association's life.

"We must grapple with the question of how central Beacon is to the mission of the Association. How much is it worth to us to maintain Beacon as a part of the association? That is why we are here today. Not for impassioned speeches about how important Beacon is. We have covered that base. Not for impassioned speeches saying that we should sell the press, that as a religious association we have no business in the publishing business. We knew the cash reserves would run out. We did not know how quickly. I had planned to work with the board and ask the questions [which we've identified] about [how central Beacon is to the Association's] mission. But after September 11, book sales—not just at Beacon but in other presses—almost stopped, and the losses at Beacon soared to the $400,000 level. I thought we had another year, but the world intervened, so we have to have this conversation now.

"Publishing has changed radically and rapidly. The development of chain outlets like Barnes and Noble and Borders have made viability more difficult for small presses and profitability more difficult for all. Beacon is the only small trade press now in existence, and it is a medium more dominated by whales—or sharks. The existence of Beacon is possible only with an endowment, which Beacon does not now have, or with the support of an institution. We must assume that Beacon will lose money. When Helene Atwan came to us with a revised financial forecast, we considered a variety of options:

  • Find a major donor—we tried, and were unsuccessful.
  • Reduce the size of the operation—but that does not reduce the deficit.
  • Merge the press with another small publishing house with similar attitude. But this does not create a thriving business, and we would lose control of the Beacon mark.
  • Fourth, consider the possibility of selling the Press now. But we came up with another alternative:
  • Develop a business plan that would limit the losses to an acceptable level and test to see if the plan could be implemented.

"In January we alerted the UUA Board of these possibilities, and in April, the Board voted to pursue this option, which would limit losses to $200K in a year and no more than $300K in any one year. The board has voted to test this plan for three years, with regular financial updates. Let me be clear. Operating Beacon at a loss, even a reduced loss, will have an impact on our service to our congregations. There will be things we cannot do because we elect to keep the Press. It is a decision that has implications.

"In conversations with the Board and with the Moderator, we decided not to keep this conversation and problem silent or secret. So we have carved out time for them, and for you, to have your questions answered and to voice your opinions. That is why we are here. How much is it worth to us to keep Beacon Press? How much is it worth to keep this commitment?"

Financial Advisor Larry Ladd offered a PowerPoint presentation on the finances of the Press and noted, "Many of you have stories about how Beacon Press has changed your attitudes and lives, and this has been the case for me."

He urged that people be open to conducting a review of Beacon's finances and how they are a part of UUA finances. Ladd went on to explain that the UUA has four 'checking accounts': its current account (operating budget); its endowment—gifts to help fund present and future; the congregational property and loan commission—loans congregations money to renovate, etc.; and Beacon Press—which supports day to day operations. The 'checking accounts,' he said, are a convenient fiction—if one account runs out of money, another must be drawn upon.

In FY 2001, Beacon sustained a $363K loss. This year, there will be a $265K loss. There have been deficits in six of last seven years and the fund balance achieved from sales of the UUA Hymnbook, "Singing the Living Tradition," and titles by Marian Wright Edelman and Michael McDonald's "All Souls," which had provided a cushion for other operating losses for Beacon, will be gone in late 2002, meaning that the UUA now has to spend money on Beacon.

Helene Atwan, Director of the Press, discussed (PDF) the Press' objectives to raise its profile as a publisher of important books while committing not to exceed $200K in deficits or $300K in any one year and while laying a foundation for a more sustainable publishing program. Atwan recalled a piece of Beacon's history: in 1898 American Unitarian Association (AUA) President Samuel Eliot asked the AUA to develop new powers of publishing service, noting that the "publication of books that appeal to the higher instincts do not command as a rule a higher circulation and cannot, therefore, be handled by the publishing houses that are primarily commercial."

Atwan said that Beacon has published sixty-seven books, each of which addresses one or more of the principles and purposes of the UUA. Beacon Press is a department of the UUA, working every day on the public witness agenda of the UU movement. Atwan said that the Press has reduced overhead by reducing staff and cutting non-essential expenses, using digital technology, promoting special sales, house sales, and raising prices. The Press has also adjusted its focus to add books with built in special and organizational sales potential—examples include Robert Moses' Radical Equations, sold to the Algebra Project; Bill Schulz' In Our Own Best Interest; Linda Lantieri's Waging Peace in Our Schools; and John Bryant's Banking on Our Future.

Atwan also noted the support coming from organizations that have committed to buying books in advance of publication. She said, "We have just published What Kids Need, with significant support from the Carnegie Corporation. We have just agreed to publish a book on small schools funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation who will buy 11,000 copies and help with other expenses. They also will support Deborah Meier's In Schools We Trust, as well as Wealth and Our Commonwealth by Bill Gates Sr. and Chuck Collins."

Atwan, noting other cost cutting measures, reminded the assembled group of Beacon's 150th anniversary 2003. She said that a new history of Beacon will be ready next year and concluded, "We are active every day in affirming and promoting all seven of the purposes of Unitarian Universalism."

Responders then offered their comments. Bob Lavender, speaking from his perspectives as both former financial advisor and a former member of the Beacon Press advisory task force, said he appreciates the opportunity for the Association's membership to take a fresh look at this issue, which in this case, means facing unpleasant truth. Lavender said (PDF), "Is Beacon part of the UUA's mission? Absolutely. It is the one program that is an active affirmation and promotion of the UUA's principles—it bears our banner and is unique among religious publishing houses, not subject to the stifling perspective of hierarchy. We owe the financial advisor [Larry Ladd] a debt of gratitude to press this issue and make us examine it."

Lavender continued, "Have we run Beacon like a business? There is nothing in the business of running a religion that informs us on how to look at the operation of a publishing house. It is time to stop thinking of Beacon as a profit-making entity and realize that it is another program of the association's activity, and those programs cost money, they are not cost centers. We want financial health, not revenue. It is an ugly fact that you cannot make a living in the publishing industry on $5 million in sales. We are a trade press, a university press, and a religious publishing house. It is quite a tightrope to walk, and I think we have done a remarkable job with it, which is why we are one of the last religious publishing houses.

"If each active UU would buy one or two Beacon books a year, we would probably take care of the deficit. So if you applaud that, you should take out your checkbook. That means making a purchase and receiving a tangible return.

Rosemary Bray McNatt spoke next. She said, in part, "As a member of the recent task force on options for Beacon, I became aware of the risks facing Beacon, and the effort it would take to respond. As an editor and writer, I have an unashamed interest for preserving this Press. But as a faithful UU, as a working parish minister, and as a citizen in the largest sense, committed to the marketplace of ideas, I come to speak on behalf of Beacon Press and its witness. Make no mistake, we are talking about witness. Our president is right: at some level, every dollar we spend on Beacon is a dollar we cannot spend on something else. For those of us struggling in ministry, those of us both lay and ordained who live with the needs of small parishes, I know it is tempting to think these monies should be spent elsewhere. But I know something else: these are dangerous times. We are uncomfortable with the language of struggle, but we are engaged in a struggle for something else, for the free and open mind."

Burton Carley, commenting from the perspective of a UUA Board member and a parish minister, said: "How do you determine value? Think of your own church budget. How would you choose between a church library and an associate minister? What is the library worth? What is it worth in terms that are placed against other programs and services in the life of the congregation? What is Beacon Press worth to you? I have a figure in mind. $4 million. What is $4 million? It is the price of an endowment that would produce approx. $200K per year to offset losses. I believe this money is among us, but maybe not enough. This is what I am told, by the fund raisers of our association—that there is little interest in raising an endowment for Beacon Press. So what is it worth? 'All the sentiments of the world weigh less than a single action,' said James Russell Lowell. It is my hope that we will determine what the right action is."

Gini Courter, the final respondant, said, "I am just beginning my eighth year on the (UUA Board) finance committee. And we have talked about Beacon in many meetings. This is not the first task force that has looked at Beacon. This year, though, something interesting happened. Of all the programs we have, Beacon talks to the finance committee, and so, often, the discussion is about money. But this discussion should not be about money, but about value. I love books. I write books. I buy technical books with CDs and hang the CDs in the garden to take the birds off the raspberries. I love books. I write books no one buys. I love them, though: I love that we have books that support our values. I love that we publish books that no one else will, that we have a commitment to take our books into the marketplace.

"But I realize that I am not necessarily of the new generation. I realize that publishing is changing. For a while we thought electronic books would take over the industry, but we found out that people that don't buy print books, won't buy them electronically either. We are at a time when the publishing industry is in turmoil

"Beacon is a department of the UUA, but we have held it apart as a profit center. If we could turn back and look fresh and anew, would we found a Press? We might buy more web space, do new starts [new congregations], do other things. But the question is silly and unhelpful for two reasons: we probably couldn't imagine a Press as wonderful and with the standing in the marketplace that Beacon has. And we have not been given $200K. So now we are in a position where we need to take a look at what it is worth to us. We could raise money in the capital campaign, but few UUs chose to devote their money in this direction. I have struggled with this for seven years, and now we [the UUA Board] have launched a three-year experiment. We will need to have answers. I look forward to hearing from you."

Moderator Ned Wight announced that there remained seven minutes for questions from the floor. Carol Gray of Springfield, MA said, "$200-300K is a small price for these books—it's hundreds of thousands of conversations that we can have because of these books... We need to stop thinking of this as a profit-making entity. We are unique in our values and ideas…we cannot let this be seen as a financial enterprise."

Tom Kimble, Hartford, CT talked about advances paid to authors. Helene Atwan responded to the question, saying, "We do pay lower advances, but we are looking for books that might not be published by other presses."

A question was asked about Beacon's loss of $200K and what that represented in the UUA budget. President Sinkford responded, saying that $200K amounted to about 1% of the total operating budget for the Association. That $200K gets us a lot, he said: the Ministerial Settlement Office costs about 200K a year. NPR advertising cost about $200K. "The choices we have to make—and yes, we will continue to do ministerial settlement—mean that we have to decide to invest in Beacon and not do something else."

Moderator Wight called the Beacon Press section of the plenary to a close, reminding delegates of a Friday afternoon workshop on this topic and an upcoming segment scheduled for the Sunday afternoon (June 23) plenary which will offer further opportunity for commentary on the subject.

Process observations were offered by Tamara Payne-Alex, and Rev. Richard Nugent, chair of the Commission on Social Witness, came forward to explain the social witness action process for debate and vote on study action items. Nugent introduced other members of the Commission: Rev. Jan Carlsson-Bull, Rev. Barbara Child, Robert Sarley, and Chris Trace, and Scott Keeler, staff.

Wayne Arnason, secretary of the Association, gave an initial credential report, stating that registered attendance is at 3807 people: 1695 delegates, representing 555 congregations, 48 states, 8 provinces, the District of Columbia, the Virgin Islands, Mexico, and France.

Moderator Olson then called on Rev. Ray Drennan, minister of the Unitarian Church of Montreal, for an announcement about Quebec legislative activities of interest to Unitarian Universalists. Drennan said, "Forty years ago, Quebec was in the middle of its own dark age. Churches were harassed, homosexuals were jailed, and all ideas were repressed. Quebec has undergone La Revolution Tranquille, the quiet revolution. During the last few months another gigantic leap forward has been taken. The Quebec government introduced a motion to legalize civil unions, and the government wanted to set up a new category that would be separate but equal to marriage.

"The minister of justice said he would like to be inclusive in the law, but thought Quebec society was not yet ready. Montreal Unitarians were asked to join voice with a core of people—gay and lesbian activist groups, to not only modify but revolutionize the way gay and lesbian people would be treated. I was asked to present a speech to the general assembly of Quebec. Our liberal religious voice was the only religious voice heard in favor of this motion. We argued that love was love, that caring relationships are formed in a variety of settings, that this was not a religious matter but a matter of social values. We argued that this should prevail. And the government and the minister of justice listened.

"I am pleased to report that on June 7, the final legislation was passed unanimously by the National Assembly of Quebec. This law was not a political compromise as some of us feared—it gives gay and lesbian couples the full rights of heterosexual marriage, in all ways, including adoption, equal rights to fertility clinics, etc. It is one of the most progressive legislations on the continent, and the law will come into effect in the next few days. We have reason to proud. Our UU voices contributed to this action. There will be a statement of conscience brought to this Assembly, so that we can congratulate the government and the people of Quebec on this amazing development."

Moderator Diane Olson then declared the plenary to be in recess until Saturday morning, June 23, at 8:30 a.m.

Reported by Deborah Weiner.

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Last updated on Thursday, September 8, 2011.

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