February 2009: What is the Purpose of General Assembly?
"What is the purpose of General Assembly (GA) and how might you envision it differently?"
Response from Laurel Hallman
General Assembly exists to conduct the business and shape the direction of our association. Over time, however, it’s become much more than that: General Assembly provides the annual ‘gathering of the tribe’ from all parts of our nation, even the globe. Several ‘GAs’ happen concurrently, as people reconnect with one another, leaders share best practices, new ministers are recognized and deceased ministers are named, speakers inspire and inform us, music and worship nourish us, and we wrestle with the issues of our time.
I applaud this year’s decision to include UU [Unitarian Universalist] University within GA. It will attract and inform congregational leaders in a more central way. Yet General Assembly cannot be the most prominent way that we support congregational leaders. As president, I will attend to the many ways in which we can make better use of technology to connect our congregations to more information and to better skills. These innovations will become especially necessary in light of the recent economic downturn.
I look forward to the recommendations of the Fifth Principle Task Force, which will soon weigh in on how we might gather more productively. I imagine that, in years to come, we UUs will gather as a whole less often. By contrast, we will connect more often—both electronically and physically—through our districts, regions, theological schools, and affinity groups. When we do meet at GA, we will take better care to align our important resolutions, both with specific actions and with our available resources, to increase our power and effectiveness in the world.
Response from Peter Morales
General Assembly has several purposes. The first purpose, of course, is to do the business of the Association. This is the purpose given in the bylaws. However, General Assembly is much more than a business meeting. It is a kind of tribal gathering. It is the time when we come together to celebrate, to worship, to network, to learn, to be inspired, to feel like one people. This opportunity to come together is vitally important. GA is where we feel our collective power, where we get a sense of being a national and international movement.
There has been a lot of talk in the last few years of moving the General Assembly from an annual event to every other year. Some of this is driven by cost considerations. Many other religious groups hold their national meetings every other year.
While I am sympathetic to the arguments for moving GA to every other year, we should not make this decision without a great deal of reflection and planning. First, we must acknowledge that there would be real losses. We would lose important and deeply meaningful annual events like the Service of the Living Tradition and the Ware Lecture. We would lose the ability to listen to our leaders and to speak in a timely way to important moral issues.
The key to the success of any move away from an annual GA will be to create compelling regional alternatives in the off years. There is exciting potential in such gatherings. For example, the needs of congregations in the Northeast are different from those in the West. More congregations could have an opportunity to share best practices. Regional gatherings can potentially involve more members and more congregations. What is essential, if we are to move to this alternative, is that the events in non-GA years be of the highest quality and be more accessible financially than General Assembly.
A major change to General Assembly can open new possibilities and unleash new energy, but only if we make the changes carefully and provide other gatherings that inspire, educate and create strong bonds among congregations.
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Last updated on Friday, July 22, 2011.