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Plenary III

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General Assembly 2003 Event 2018

Friday afternoon’s plenary session at Hynes Auditorium in Boston began with delegates singing the African chant Oomama baku dala babethandeza,“Our mothers taught us to pray.” Moderator Diane Olson called to order the third plenary session of the 42nd General Assembly, and invited Executive Vice President Kay Montgomery to deliver her report.

Montgomery said that by some weird twist of faith, today was the day that twenty years ago she came to work for the Association. She remembered being exhilarated and scared and overwhelmed. Everyone on the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) staff, she said, has felt that at some time.Yet the UUA Staff are like guitarist Freddy Green, a back-up guitarist for Count Basie, whose job it was not to be heard by the audience, but by the musicians. His job was to keep the beat going strong, which is what the UUA Staff does for our congregations and Association.

Highlights of the staff work this past year are:

  • A new credentialing program for lay religious education professionals. This includes a comprehensive path for meaningful recognition of achievement of those who choose to dedicate their lives to religious education. The Rev. Beth Williams is the new RE Credentialing Director.
  • The RE Lifespan Faith Development Plan has begun a new lifespan integrated curriculum project that will provide moral and justice grounding for people of all ages.
  • During the past year, “Mind the Gap Sundays” raised more than one million dollars to support work for youth and young adults. There are now 130 campus ministry groups, up from 70 last year, and with 200 anticipated by this time next year.
  • The UU Women’s Federation has endowed the Clara Barton Internship in the Washington Office that will enable an intern to focus on justice issues for women in Washington. This is just a continuation of the UUWF’s creative and revolutionary decisions.

Montgomery then introduced Harlan Limpert, Director for Lay Leadership Development. Limpert, who began work in September, 2002, announced the launch of a series of new web resources for lay leadership in our congregations [since replaced by Top Picks from UU Experts, February 2010]. By visiting InterConnections: Resources for Layleaders, lay leaders can access 10,000 pages of material developed with them in mind.

This new website section provides:

  • Quick Start, which suggests the three most useful books, articles and websites on particular topics, and is designed specifically for new lay leaders;
  • Leadership Events Calendar, which lists a wide variety of educational opportunities for lay leaders that can be searched by date, topic, sponsor or keyword;
  • FAQ, an easy to use list of 100 frequently asked questions including ones on canvass that includes six different answers with online links to the Office of Congregational Fund Raising, books on the topic and where to purchase them, and links to articles that are helpful; and
  • Online link to InterConnections newsletter.

Limpert said his vision of lay leadership development is to offer a well-coordinated, effective and spiritually grounded resource that can increase lay leaders effectiveness.

Montgomery continued her report by asking Patricia Frevert, head of the Publications Office for sixteen years, to report on Skinner House Books. Frevert reported that Skinner House began as a Beacon Press imprint for the denomination, and that it now focuses on publishing resources which promote worship, heritage and healthy congregations. Worship resources include Great Occasions and meditation manuals; heritage resources include the popular Pocket Guide to Unitarian Universalism and Being Liberal in an Illiberal Age; and healthy congregation resources include such books as Churchworks, Essex Conversations and Soul Work.

Montgomery stated that if there is one thing we’ve done well, is that we’ve learned to be clear about justice for bisexual, gay, lesbian and transgender people. We have done better than much of the world. She called on the Rev. Keith Kron, director of the Office of Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian and Transgender Concerns, to speak about the work of this office.

Kron reported that we are celebrating thirty years of work, joy, struggle and meaning making through what was originally the Office of Gay Affairs, to today’s office that covers a much broader understanding of human sexuality. The work of those who came before has set the path for the resources and services offered today, including stickers, bibliographies, pamphlets, guides and other resources. Seven years ago there were sixty Welcoming Congregations, and now we have 390. This is the highest percentage of welcoming congregations in any predominantly heterosexual religious movement. Two transgender ministers have been called to ministries in congregations, and we have widened our ability to see a minister before us, rather than a category. The members of the office have provided direct service to 400 congregations over the past seven years.

Montgomery said that these reports give just a taste of what the 200 UUA staff members do—transformative and hard work of ‘playing rhythm’ behind the scenes as we all work to make the world a more just place and advocate for UU values. For most of the staff, their work is what Frederick Buechner defines as the ideal vocation: the place where “your deep gladness and your deepest hunger meet.”

Report of the Executive Vice President

By some weird twist of fate, today is the very day that, twenty years ago, I came to work for the Association. I remember being exhilarated and scared and overwhelmed. I remember what I was wearing. I remember what I ate and who I talked to all day long and about what. I remember that by the end of the day I was quite sure that I was in over my head.

And I was, of course. Aren’t we all, from time to time? I’m pretty sure everyone on the UUA staff has felt that way sometimes. It’s a complicated thing we do, you know, working for you.. A couple of years ago, Tom Stites, who is our Director of Communications but who you probably know as the editor of the UUWorld, told me a story from his days as a cub reporter for the Kansas City Star.

Tom, age 20, was sent out to cover a gig that Count Basie and his band were doing in a shopping center parking lot—back in the days when shopping center parking lots had a lot more élan than they do now. Perfect story for Tom who was then and is now a jazz buff. So Tom sits through an evening of fabulous music and then gets to interview Count Basie. As the interview winds down, Tom thought it would be useful to share an insight with Basie. “You know that guitarist in the back? He’s terrific. I wonder why you don’t amplify him so folks can hear him better?” Basie fixes Tom with a beady look and says, “he’s doing rhythm, my friend, the point is not for you to hear him; the point is for the band to hear him.” No solos for those who play rhythm. Just keep the band working together. Freddie Green spent his whole career playing rhythm; he was an almost-invisible star.

So that’s a bit what it’s like to be on the UUA staff. Our job is to make you, the folks in our congregations, look good and be effective at what you do: the job of religion. Help you do even better what you already do well. Provide services and help you through the exciting and the tender and the rough patches.

It is my pleasure, each year, to tell you about some of the work of the staff and this afternoon, in a minute, I’m going to introduce you to three of our staff and let them tell their own stories. But first, a few highlights about some initiatives that are new this year.

It’s a tremendously exciting time for Unitarian Universalism religious education. On June 2, in partnership with the Liberal Religious Educators’ Association, we launched the Religious Education Credentialing Program. This new program for lay religious education professionals will provide a comprehensive path for further professional development and will encourages meaningful recognition of professional achievement. So thanks to those of you who imagined and brought to fruition this dream, and particularly to Beth Williams, our devoted Religious Education Credentialing Director.

And another beginning in religious education: Our Lifespan Faith Development staff group, along with an extraordinary advisory committee has begun work on a new lifespan integrated curriculum project that will be introduced over the next several years, one that will provide moral and justice grounding for people of all ages. Stay tuned.

Many of your congregations held a Mind the Gap Sunday this year. More than a million dollars was raised: new work is being done for our youth and our young adults. Many new campus ministries have begun. There are 130 now as opposed to the 70 we had at this time last year. By this time next year we believe the number will be 200. It’s been thrilling. We are jump-starting the future of our faith. So will those of you who worked on your congregation’s Mind the Gap Sunday or contributed to Mind the Gap please stand and be recognized.

I came into Unitarian Universalism during the women’s movement and the feminist agenda has always been central to my understanding of what makes the world a good and safe and a creative place. A lot of what we achieved during that era is under attack, “the war on women” some people call it. So I want to note particularly that the Unitarian Universalist Women’s Federation did a wonderful and generous thing this year: they have endowed an internship in our Washington Office that will fund the work of an intern, each year, who will focus on justice issues for women, the Clara Barton Internship for Women’s Issues. I’d like to ask you to join me in thanking our sisters at the UUWF for this creative and revolutionary decision, the latest in a long series of creative and revolutionaries decisions by Unitarian Universalist women.

And also new this year is our lay leadership office. Harlan Limpert started off in theological school, was ordained, but then went into business where he eventually became Director for Human Resources for Target Stores. But his heart remained with Unitarian Universalism and for all those years he was an active layperson in his own church. This year Harlan returned professionally to the place where his heart stayed. He is our Lay Leadership Director, beginning work that is long overdue. I’m going to ask Harlan now to tell you a bit about his work. . . .

[Harlan’s presentation]

Those of you who were at General Assembly last year heard a lot about our Beacon Press. You’re hearing more this year. But there’s another publishing venture at the Association that you may know less about: Skinner House Books, which works hand-in-hand with Beacon to remind us, as their joint badge says, “buying books is a spiritual practice.” Patricia Frevert has been the head of our publications office for almost 17 years and it is under her leadership (and with her colleagues there) that Skinner House has tripled the number of books it publishes, enhanced their visual quality, and brought you numerous, terrific books published specifically for Unitarian Universalists. Patricia . . .

[Patricia’s presentation]

If there’s one thing that we Unitarian Universalists have done well, it’s to learn to be clear about justice for bisexuals, gays, lesbians, and transgender people. Much of the rest of our world has done less well, yesterday’s Supreme Court decision notwithstanding. The Rev. Keith Kron has been the head of our BGLT office for seven years, and with Barb Greve and Simona Munson, reminds us that the world has never needed our voice more, a voice that says that all families and all people are sacred. Keith’s going to tell you about the history of his office and the work that’s being done there. Keith . . .

[Keith’s presentation]

Thank you, Keith and Patricia and Harlan.

There are more than 200 UUA staff who work on your behalf. They stay, mostly, behind the scenes, playing rhythm as it were. Invisible stars. They do transformative and hard work. They create curricula, clean offices, work on our web site, minister to our ministers and lay leaders, publish books and magazines, help make the world a more just place, advocate for Unitarian Universalist values, provide workshops and consultations, travel to your congregation when you celebrate or are in trouble. And their patron saint is, of course, Freddie Green, the almost-invisible rhythm guitar player.

Here are some of their faces. With Count Basie and his band, with Freddie Green in the background, making everything work.

[visuals of staff and music]

Frederick Buechner says that the ideal vocation is “the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” And that’s been my fortunate lot professionally. I’ve got what is, for me, simply the best job on the planet. And many of our staff feel the same way. But their work is, as I say, hard in some says. You ask a lot. They deliver a lot. Will you join me in thanking these mostly invisible stars?

And thanks to you, too, for your devotion, your work in your own congregations, for being the people who make the work of the UUA staff real.

Kay Montgomery
Executive Vice President

Olson then called upon Janis Elliott, chair of the Commission on Appraisal, to present the Commission’s annual report.

Elliott reported that the COA is charged to review any function of the UUA that they believe will benefit by review and to report to the GA on their assessment. The last two studies and the current one have all centered on the theme of how we are together, first Interdependence on congregational polity, then Belonging on membership, and the current study on The Unity in our Theological Diversity.

Elliott reported that the COA issues a major report every four years, and also provides an annual report every year at GA. These reports, she said, should always represent their best work, but to the Commission’s dismay and regret, their oral report last year did not live up to their ideals of their best work or their commitment to be anti-racist and anti-oppressive. Elliott then called upon Commission member the Rev. Roberta Finkelstein.

Finkelstein said that last year the Commission had found out, much to their dismay and embarrassment, what their (report) was really about. Their skit, planned by email at the last minute, was supposed to talk about transition from the old study to a new one, but what was seen among those words was a tall white man elbowing a small woman of color out of the way. It was a powerful but unintended meaning, accidental and careless. In spite of intentions, the skit was not just about old books and new topics. It showed a lack of awareness of the depth of racism, and the need to look at all that is done through a lens of anti-racism and anti-oppression.

Finkelstein described the process of last year’s GA as being “caught in the headlights,” and said it took them a while to regroup. There was one omission, though, that they all regret—that they did not return to apologize. Finkelstein said that she would remedy that now: the Commission is sorry for the hurt and distress caused by their presentation last year.

Finkelstein also reviewed the process that the Commission undertook over the past year to become more aware of the deep impact of racism. They attended retreats with outside facilitators, devoted part of every meeting on focusing on their message and their relationships, and have reflected on additional steps so they do not misstep again. They have created ongoing relationships with DRUUM and Journey Toward Wholeness and the Anti-Racism Team. It is not easy, Finkelstein said, “to find out what your sermon is about, but the only way to maintain right relationship in religious community is not only studying it, but living the changes that need to be made.”

Commission member Charles Redd spoke of the Commission’s current work on finding the unity in our theological diversity. They have held hearings in various cities, written statements, and are excited about the exploration of this unity. The Commission suspects there might be an answer to this question, but not in the form of a statement of belief or creed for UU’s. Rather, they believe it is in shared commitment to certain values, practices and assumptions, or maybe a worldview or way of experiencing life. The Commission invites feedback and ideas on their work.

Rick Van Dyke, chair of the Board of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC) reported on the work of the UUSC during the past year. They have continued their partnerships with other like-minded organizations and indigenous programs both in the United States and around the world. They continue their work camps, free speech projects, and support for women’s right organizations, as well as supporting speaking tours on social justice issues. They have also been working for peace in Congo, again with indigenous groups. Domestically, they helped raise $40,000 for those who suffered from natural disasters, and they also brought news to UU’s of justice issues that often went unreported by major media. More information about the UUSC and their work can be found on the UUSC website.

Fran Mercer, Executive Director of the UU United Nations Office (UUUNO), delivered the report on the work of the UUUNO by taking delegates on a virtual tour of their annual social justice conference which focused on access to and protection of clean water. This conference brings together UUs of various ages, introduces them to the work of the UN and the UUUNO, and provides them with a grounding of how this affiliate organization works on their behalf. More information about UUUNO can be found on the UU-UNO website.

Olson declared the plenary session in recess until 8:30 a.m. on Saturday, June 28, 2003.

Reported for the web by Lisa Presley; edited by Debbie Weiner.

For more information contact web @

This work is made possible by the generosity of individual donors and congregations. Please consider making a donation today.

Last updated on Thursday, September 8, 2011.

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