Stronger connections among congregations will strengthen "the community of autonomous congregations" that is essential to the flourishing of congregational polity within each church and throughout the movement. This section appraises the existing mechanisms for cooperation among Unitarian Universalist congregations and the needs and means to enhance these linkages, which undergird the sense of community and common cause within the overall movement.
The organization that should provide for the widest and deepest degree of cooperative relationships among all Unitarian Universalist congregations is the Unitarian Universalist Association itself. The UUA is in an excellent position to promote, enhance, and stimulate such relationships, precisely because it was established as an association of and for all congregations in the Unitarian Universalist movement.
Some members believe, however, that the UUA has come to acquire considerably more functions and responsibilities than should be expected of an organization whose primary mission is to facilitate cooperative links among the congregations that form and largely support it. Criticism is directed, for example, to the Association's role in credentialing clergy and selecting potential candidates for referral to congregations seeking clergy as part of the settlement process. The authority of the individual congregation to call clergy of its choice is usually the most highly valued aspect of its congregational polity. Because the Association performs services like these in connection with even this fundamental congregational decision, a significant number of Unitarian Universalists consider the UUA an overly dominant force in a movement that purports to treasure congregational polity. The people so concerned find their beliefs reinforced by the extent of UUA activities in other areas.
An overview of the present structure and operations of the UUA organization is provided in the UUA Directory, published annually by the Association. A copy of each edition is mailed free to every member congregation. In addition to listing all congregations and ministers, the UUA Directory provides the names and duties of the principal officers of the UUA, and the members of its Board of Trustees, the Board's committees, and the Association's more than 50 other boards, commissions, committees, departments, offices, councils, and working groups. It also describes some 50 associate and affiliate member organizations and other denominational groups that are significant elements in the overall UU movement. The numerous positions listed in the UUA Directory include both elected and appointed individuals. Many of these groups and committees consist of unpaid volunteers, but paid professional staff are active throughout the organization as well.
How can the existence of such a seemingly powerful headquarters be consistent with the right of each congregation to make its own decisions, for example, the right to call its professional ministry as part of its congregational polity. See Section 4, "The UUA Bylaws: A Study in Ambivalence," for a discussion of the provisions of the Association's Bylaws on congregational polity. Despite the apparent hierarchy of the UUA, the autonomy of the congregation in calling clergy as well as in other areas is explicitly recognized in key provisions of those Bylaws.
Nevertheless, some Unitarian Universalists, both new and seasoned, believe that congregational polity is endangered or negated by certain UUA offices, activities, or policies. While a few well-informed people can cite concerns that are arguable, this attitude appears primarily among the many Unitarian Universalists who are not familiar with denominational affairs.
To these people, the apparently centralized nature of some UUA operations intrudes on their congregations. A major pressure point with respect to congregational polity is thus a sense of isolation, which leads either to a lack of interest or, worse, to a sense of hostility. Both reactions result in limited or no involvement in the life of the Association and the overall movement and a narrow focus on the affairs of the individual congregation.
When a rationale for this attitude is expressed, it may be characterized as "preserving congregational polity." Yet such an interpretation does not reflect true congregational polity. A primary conclusion of this report is that the benefits of congregational polity for a single church do not exist in isolation, but can thrive only as part of the community of autonomous congregations. This essential element in the concept of congregational polity isa central point emphasized by Conrad Wright. His historical analysis ranges from the original seventeenth-century New England parishes through the more than 1,000 congregations in the UUA today.
How can decision making and policy setting by the one organization that can most appropriately reflect the entire community of autonomous congregations-the UUA-be carried out in new ways? The goal should be for the dubious congregations to learn that the Unitarian Universalist Association, which to them seems both authoritarian and useless, actually intrudes less and offers more help than they believe. One means of achieving this goal is through an array of measures to further decentralize many UUA services and activities into the existing UU districts and to regions or smaller groups within them.
The Association has established 23 districts in its continental organization. These include geographically compact districts with 30, 40, or 50 or more congregations each (e.g., Massachusetts Bay, with 57 congregations in part of one state; and Metropolitan New York, with 51 congregations in neighboring parts of three states), on one side of the continuum. On the other side, some districts cover very wide geographic areas and have either many or few congregations (e.g., Pacific Northwest, with 66 congregations in four states and one province; and Western Canada, with nine congregations in four provinces). Of course, the size of individual congregations also varies considerably within a given district.
Although districts are recognized in the UUA Bylaws, no specific purpose is stated for them beyond their longstanding political role, under which they elect 20 of the 25 members of the UUA Board of Trustees. In more recent years, however, the development of new nomenclature has subtly helped the districts to become important vehicles for the delivery of services for member congregations.
Until a few years ago, most districts had a professional staff of only one person, a member of the Unitarian Universalist clergy or a layperson, whose official title was District Executive. There is growing recognition in the UU movement that the title "executive" is inappropriate for a community of autonomous UU churches enjoying congregational polity. In the District of Metropolitan New York, for example, the title now used is "District and Congregational Services Consultant." Other districts have taken similar steps.
Changes such as these also harmonize with the new name of the central UUA office that relates to the districts, which has been transformed from the "District Services Department" to "Department for Congregational, District, and Extension Services." Emphasizing the word "congregational" reflects the primary purpose of this department-to serve each congregation in every district. (The inclusion of Extension Services reflects a merger of two UUA departments with certain related functions.) Most professional field staff are paid jointly by the district and the UUA; each pays about half of the salary packages. This change in nomenclature helps to emphasize that it is increasingly each district's responsibility to provide key services to the congregations in the following areas.
Whenever activities generated at the district level are informative and fruitful and whenever the services provided are helpful locally, the effect enhances congregational polity. The participating churches and fellowships learn from each other's successes and failures. Both nearby and distant neighbors within a district develop a stronger sense of mutual respect and trust. Actively sharing in the community of autonomous congregations deepens belief in the value of the UU movement as a whole.
The districts have the potential to foster the many types of connections we deem important. Participants in activities such as summer institutes, district meetings, cluster meetings, or sister congregation exchanges find real value in contact with people from other congregations, the exchange of ideas and approaches, and the development of personal relationships.
Districts could be more intentional about targeting affinity groups for these activities. Cluster meetings should be tested on topics such as congregational size or training programs, rather than mere geographic proximity. Yoking congregations together for purposes such as support, advice, social interaction, and pulpit exchanges has great potential for enhancing communication and connectedness among congregations.
Much change is happening at the district and regional levels. Districts, regions, and clusters are an increasingly important means of interconnecting congregations and the UUA, even though they were not primarily designed for that purpose. At the same time, the districts vary widely in area, number of congregations, and number of members. For these and other reasons-including uneven availability of technological equipment, resources, and staff-districts differ considerably in their ability to deliver an ideal array of services and information. Careful thought should be given to how the UUA can support the dissemination of services and information within districts and their regions so as to nurture optimally the community of autonomous congregations.
We recommend that the UUA Board of Trustees request the District Presidents Council, together with other particularly knowledgeable individuals, examine all feasible steps-in full consultation with other cognizant leaders within the UUA organization, districts, and especially individual congregations-to strengthen the system of decentralized activities and services in all districts, regions, and clusters; to meet identified needs; and to report its findings and recommendations.
While such a study should help strengthen the sense of community and common cause among all participants within each district, many other congregational groups already function cooperatively without formal recognition by the UUA.
We believe that another helpful approach would be for the UUA to foster the development of joint ventures among congregational groups that have common spheres of interest and concern and/or that share physical proximity. Here are some examples of geographically defined groups and groups based on common concerns:
Congregational polity not only permits but also definitely encourages any group of congregations to act jointly by mutual agreement in any way in which congregations can act individually. The above examples show the considerable variety of cooperative programs already in place; but much more needs to be accomplished.
We recommend that the Association place greater emphasis on moving promptly toward a more consultative role to foster and nourish a wide array of cooperative undertakings among congregations such as those outlined above, as part of a new effort to help Unitarian Universalists achieve a more true community of autonomous congregations. The field staff can be helpful in this effort.
Such programs may be long term, like the UU Urban Ministries, or short term, like a single celebratory event. They may be localized, like a metropolitan cluster, or intentionally international, like the Partner Church Council. While the UUA cannot and should not try to control these joint ventures, which echo the spirit of cooperation between business corporations, the Association can and should actively encourage and support them.
We recommend that the UUA assist and encourage such joint ventures in the following ways:
Such joint ventures offer new opportunities to make productive use of the freedom and creativity that congregational polity fosters. They utilize horizontal communication networks, ad hoc organizations, and local initiatives. Joint ventures, if actively supported, can add a new dimension to congregational polity in the Unitarian Universalist movement.
The General Assembly (GA) of the Unitarian Universalist Association is the major event in the yearly life of the denomination. Each congregation is entitled to select and send one or more voting delegates, depending on the number of its own members, and designate alternates as well. Ministers in Fellowship with the UUA and serving member churches are also entitled to be voting delegates.
Each year the GA Planning Committee schedules between 250 and 300 program elements during the five-day period. These include plenary business sessions, where debate and action take place on proposed Amendments to Bylaws and Rules, one UUA (US or Continental) Statement of Conscience, proposed Study/Action Issues for Social Justice, GA Actions of Immediate Witness, Business Resolutions, and other measures requiring votes; plus worship services, hearings, workshops, lectures, panel discussions, performances, social and recreational events, and meetings of all manner of associated and affiliated groups.
The General Assembly is also the venue for periodic voting in elections for certain UUA positions, including president, moderator, trustee-at-large, and members of standing committees. Provision is made for absentee election ballots for congregations that are not sending delegates to a General Assembly at which any such elections are to be held. There are no current provisions for absentee voting on Bylaw changes. (See "Participation in Voting on All Bylaw Amendments" further on in this section.)
Some congregations are represented at General Assemblies by a full complement of delegates and alternates. Some send additional members, who come as non-voting observer-participants. In recent years approximately 2,500 people of whom about 1,600 are delegates, have attended General Assemblies, as shown by the UUA General Assembly Minutes for 1992-1996.
The value of all these activities at General Assembly notwithstanding, a major problem facing our movement is that not enough congregations participate actively in the governance of the UUA and, in particular, the General Assemblies. (The same problem occurs with district annual meetings.) Of the roughly 1,000 congregations in the UUA, only about 500 have sent one or more delegates to General Assembly in recent years.
The Reverend Howell K. Lind, district and congregational services consultant for the District of Metropolitan New York, recently stated:
The single most challenging part of working with the congregations of the Metro District is the lack of denominational connection that a number of our congregations feel toward the district and the continental movement of Unitarian Universalism. . . . [T]here is . . . a self-imposed sense of isolation and parochialism, a reluctance to enter into and participate in the larger world of our faith. . . . My experience tells me that when congregations actively support and participate in the larger world of Unitarian Universalism, they benefit greatly in every aspect of congregational life. The expanding of vision and reaching out to the larger movement on the part of congregations is the most challenging issue that hinders our Metro District from being even better and more successful than it is.
Despite the potential for stimulation and a sense of real participation in the overall movement, then, quite a few congregations pay very little attention to General Assemblies. Some cannot afford to send a lay delegate or even their minister. Apparently there are other congregations whose primary concern with their own affairs is so strong that most members simply have little or no interest in the activities of the larger Unitarian Universalist movement.
Among congregations that do send one or more lay delegates and/or a minister, one or more of the following unfortunate practices often impede the General Assembly from achieving its presumed and needed role as the true voice of the denomination:
A fundamental problem underlying these failures and inadequacies is that the structure of the movement gives much authority but very few concomitant responsibilities to individual congregations. The UUA thus makes virtually no demands, but issues only requests, invitations, or advice for such vital elements as financial support; attendance at General Assemblies and district meetings by appropriate delegates; good working relationships with members of the professional ministry; and wide cooperation among congregations.
This set of circumstances could be remedied if all congregations were invited, under a measure to be adopted by the Association through its full General Assembly process, to join in recovenanting with each other and the Association. The preamble to the current statements of the UUA Principles and Purposes reads: "We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote."
Covenanting, then, is how UU congregations speak with one voice on such fundamental matters as the Principles and Purposes. If all congregations were expected to join in a formal recovenanting process periodically-every five years, for example-as a condition for continued participation in the larger movement, such a process would help to enhance the sense of belonging to the larger movement on the part of each congregation. In addition, certain new commitments could be included in the recovenanting process to deal with such areas of responsibility as financial support, representation at General Assembly and district meetings, good ministerial relationships, and cooperation among congregations.
We recommend that the UUA Board of Trustees appoint a special committee charged with the responsibility for drafting a proposed periodic recovenanting measure for study and ultimate adoption by General Assembly; and for proposing appropriate ceremonies by which each congregation would be asked, after voting to recovenant with the commitments we suggest, to record and celebrate its joinder in the recovenanting process.
Because the Bylaws of the Association constitute a basic document governing congregational polity as well as setting forth the UUA Principles and Purposes and its structure and procedures, the process for changing the Bylaws is particularly pertinent to the nature and health of congregational polity. The Bylaws are continually evolving: one or more amendments are proposed at nearly every General Assembly. For example, in 1996, major changes were made in the way General Resolutions (renamed "Statements of Conscience") and other policy declarations are reviewed and revised at every stage of their development.
Most individual Bylaws may be amended by a two-thirds vote at any General Assembly. Others, designated C-Bylaws, can be changed only by passage at two General Assemblies, first by a majority vote and then by a two-thirds vote. The designation "C-Bylaws" was made at the time of merger in 1961, presumably because of the fundamental nature of these provisions. C-Bylaws govern such matters (among others) as the statements of Principles and Purposes, non-discrimination, and freedom of belief; member societies, congregational polity, admission to membership, and termination of membership; the annual General Assembly; responsibilities of the Board of Trustees; raising of funds and responsibility for investments; ministerial fellowship; Districts and their autonomy;26] and amendments to the Bylaws.
Because of the Association's commitment to the democratic process, each congregation should participate in the adoption of all changes in the fundamental document of the Association. Such provision would be also consistent with the election process, which permits casting absentee ballots in election years as well as voting by the delegates at General Assembly.
We recommend that an amendment to the Bylaws be drafted by counsel to provide that all future amendments be adopted by a two-year process. The first year would be a non-election year and the amendment would be adopted at the General Assembly by majority vote. The second year would be an election year, and the amendment would be placed on the election ballot. Passage would require a two-thirds approval of the votes cast, including those voted absentee.
Once adopted, this procedure would enable all UU congregations to have a say in any amendments that might even remotely affect their polity and in all other changes in UUA governance and procedure. It would eliminate the somewhat arbitrary distinction between C-Bylaws and other bylaws. By synchronizing this measure and all future proposed amendments with the UUA elections that are held only in alternate years, the added cost of mailing materials on proposed amendments would be negligible.
We recognize that this change would cause the amendment of what are now non-C-Bylaws to take a year longer, but we believe that being more deliberate in the alteration of the Association's basic document would have significant advantages. The process we propose would provide an opportunity for the almost 500 congregations that are not now represented at General Assemblies to be included in voting on every proposed amendment to the basic document that governs all congregations. This change would enhance the connections among all congregations and be more consistent with the Principles and Purposes of the Unitarian Universalist movement. The interest generated in proposed amendments might help to stimulate more congregations to be represented at General Assembly.
The benefits of congregational polity for a single church cannot be fully enjoyed in isolation, for true congregational polity can thrive only as part of the community of autonomous congregations. Our goal should be to help dubious congregations learn that the seemingly distant yet intrusive UUA actually intrudes less than they believe and offers many kinds of useful assistance to their congregations that should be seen as beneficial and should be fully utilized.
A major means to make such services better understood and appreciated is to increase substantially their delivery on a decentralized basis to each district and its regions or clusters. At the same time, efforts should be made to encourage the development of additional cooperative ventures among congregations that are either geographically based or that focus on common concerns.
The General Assembly and district meetings also need changes to attract participation of a significantly larger percentage of congregations and their leadership. To help assure that each congregation meets its responsibilities to the larger movement, a process for periodic recovenanting by all with each other should be devised and implemented.
To provide a greater role in UUA decision making for congregations that do not now send delegates to General Assemblies, the Bylaws should be amended to make all future amendments subject to approval by two General Assemblies. All changes will first be approved by a majority vote at a General Assembly. They will also require a two-thirds vote at the second GA coinciding with elections, including absentee ballots. This will permit participation by those congregations unable to attend, as they are now included in voting for elected positions that form the leadership of the movement.
The following were consulted (as were many fellow members of the Commission on Appraisal): Jerry Davidoff and Edward Leibensberger, general counsel to the UUA, and Barbara Prairie, General Assembly administrator.
For more information contact info @ uua.org.
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Last updated on Monday, June 20, 2011.
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