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UUA President Peter Morales's Report for General Assembly 2012

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General Assembly 2012 Event 431

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The Moderator: Please welcome UUA President the Rev. Peter Morales for his annual report.

Peter: A little more than two years ago we came to Phoenix to bear witness, to stand on the side of love, to stand on the side of human dignity. Hundreds of Unitarian Universalists from across the country. We came because we were called by our congregations here in Arizona and by grass roots organizations here in Arizona fighting for human rights for migrants.

But more than that, we were called by the memory of brave men and women who struggled so that slaves could be freed, so that women could vote, so that African Americans could break free from the oppression of Jim Crow laws. More recently we have stood on the side of love against the fear and hatred that marginalizes lbgtq people. We came, some in body, thousands more in spirit, because we were called by the distant memory of Jesus reaching out to the most despised people of his time: prostitutes, tax collectors, lepers—teaching his followers that helping the most despised person was the same as helping him. We were called by the ancient teaching that we should walk humbly and do justice.

We came because we are a religious people. We came because affirming the inherent worth and dignity of everyone means exactly that. We either mean it or we don’t. And we made a difference. Our voice was heard. Our presence was felt. Of all the faith groups, we were the most visible. We managed to get all kinds of coverage in the media—including CNN, the Washington Post, NBC and the Huffington Post. Associated Press stories ran in papers all over the country and we have been in Spanish language media as well.

But this report is not about reliving what happened two years ago.

I want to tell a story behind the story, because the story behind the story, the story of how it all came together, has much to teach us.

First, our congregations here in Arizona had built strong relationships with grassroots community organizations like Tonatierra, Puente, Somos and No More Deaths. They formed these relationships as a religious people living out their faith, living out their commitment to the inherent worth and dignity of all in the context of their local communities.

However, Arizona had become a microcosm of the malaise of fear and hatred sweeping much of our nation. The protests two years ago were both local and national. It became clear that we are all Arizona—que todos somos Arizona.

Our district and national staff became involved. Ken Brown and Tera Little of the Pacific Southwest District worked with the Arizona congregations. National staff like Susan Leslie, our Congregational Advocacy and Witness Director, were able to coordinate with national immigration rights organizations—organizations with whom we at the UUA have a long relationship. We used the outreach capacity of our Standing on the Side of Love campaign. Our UUA communications team led by John Hurley pitched in, helping us shape a message that got national attention.

My point is that we worked together. Local, regional and national staff all collaborated. I cannot overemphasize the lesson here. When we collaborate, when we work together at all levels, we multiply our effectiveness. Had our local congregations participated in isolation, they would hardly have been noticed. Had our headquarters tried to swoop in and dictate what happened here, our impact would have been small.

Ah, but together, together, we were able to be a highly visible religious presence. And, more importantly, we continue to be a voice for compassion and justice. The Arizona Immigration Ministry Team, led by Susan Frederick Gray, has done outstanding work. [Susan, you and your colleagues have done heroic work. I cannot thank you enough. Together we have raised the awareness of UUs everywhere. We have helped put a human face on the brutality of what is happening.

Working together. Collaborating. Working with partners who share our values. Learning from one another. Sharing. Multiplying our power. Nurturing bonds of love and respect. Hand in hand, mano en mano. This is how we will thrive.

We are not just an association of a thousand independent congregations. We are a religious movement of people and of congregations that are interdependent.

This has always been true of us at our best. Working together we founded what became the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee—the UUSC. Working together we raised our voices in the Civil Rights era. Working together we are steadily moving to make marriage equality the law of the land. Just imagine the future we can create together in the coming months and years.

By working together we will be able to meet the challenges and seize the opportunities of the coming years. The challenges we face are daunting. The opportunities before us are breathtaking.

Unitarian Universalism today looks very much as it did 20 years ago. There has been change, but it has been slow. Fasten your seatbelts. In 20 years we are going to be dramatically different. We are in the midst of a historic cultural change in America.

Twenty years ago we had just over 1000 congregations; today we have just over 1000. We have 1054 congregations today; a generation ago we had 1037—17 more. A generation ago our adult membership was 140,000; today it is 162,000. As you can see from the chart showing the last decade, our membership has shown little change. In the past five years our adult membership has actually gone down a bit.

Ironically, the number of people who say they are Unitarian Universalist is about 3 times as great as the number we count as members. More about that later.

But things are changing rapidly today in the religious landscape. You may have heard about the rapid membership decline in the mainline denominations. The United Church of Christ, the Presbyterians, the Methodists, the Episcopalians and the Lutherans have dropped rapidly.

In the last 50 years the percentage of Americans who call themselves Methodist, UCC, Episcopalian, Presbyterian or Lutheran has dropped in half. In half.

Even the numbers for evangelicals have dropped in the last 20 years. The evangelical boom in America is over. It has been over for a generation.

What is happening all over America is the rapid rise of the “nones.” (That is n-o-n-e-s, not n-u-n-s.) The number of nones is simply exploding. Fifty years ago about 5 out of every 100 American young adults said they identified with no religion. Ten years ago 12 out of 100 had no religion. Today the number has jumped to 25 out of every 100.

Church has become a bad brand. A new generation of Americans associates church with insincerity, hypocrisy and narrow mindedness. However, and this is crucial, these nones are not against religion. They are not secular in the usual sense. They are spiritually hungry people who have been turned off by church. By and large this exploding demographic is politically progressive and accepting of homosexuality and cultural diversity.

They are us. They are us. The number of people who are in sympathy with the core values of Unitarian Universalism is shooting through the roof.

Our values are being embraced by a new generation. This is our historic opportunity as a faith.

But while our values are embraced, these new nones are not joining congregations. They are very suspicious of church. This is our historic challenge.

We even see this among Unitarian Universalists. When sociologists survey Americans, they consistently find something like 600,000 to 650,000 who say they are Unitarian Universalist. Think about that. Three out of four UUs do not belong to one of our congregations. A lot of them are our young adults. They are my children, your children, your friends.

Our theology aligns perfectly with a rapidly growing segment of America. That is great news. We are a religion with values of compassion, celebration of human diversity, spiritual depth, of acting for justice that resonates with the America that is coming into being.

On the one hand our values are in the ascendency. On the other hand we live in a time where the institution of church is viewed with suspicion or indifference.

Here is our twofold challenge: We must strengthen our congregations and help them adapt to a tectonic cultural shift, and we must create new ways to engage the millions of spiritually hungry “nones.” We have a decade or so to get it right.

Luckily, we have the talent, the passion and the vision. We can do this if we all work together.

First, we must continue to work together to strengthen our congregations. I just talked about the new challenges that congregations face—challenges of a changing culture that views religious institutions with skepticism.

Yet we are here today because we have experienced what congregations can be. We know the intimacy and depth of a spiritual community where lives are transformed. We have seen children nurtured. We have felt the power of love as someone is supported in a time of loss or transition. We have shared joy and laughter. We have worked shoulder to shoulder in our communities.

There is great irony here. Two seemingly contradictory things are simultaneously true. The first is that our congregations face the new challenges I have mentioned. The second truth is that the hunger for authentic, progressive, spiritual community is palpable.

When I served a congregation I made a practice of standing outside greeting people as they came to worship. Week after week I met seekers hungry for religious community. They came searching for worship that touched their souls and their minds. They came eager to connect deeply with other people.

I am a parish minister. I served a wonderful congregation. I have seen scores of wonderful UU congregations in every part of the country. I know what a blessing congregational life can be. I served a congregation that grew from 400 members to more than 750 members. Millions are hungry for the kind of spiritual community we can create. I am convinced that our congregations still have enormous potential.

However, people will no longer come to church out of habit or a sense of duty. People are starving for religious communities that feed their souls. But if their souls are not fed they will go elsewhere. There is no place in tomorrow’s America for mediocre church.

The work we do together to support our congregations, to grow leaders, to educate and mentor religious professionals and to provide resources has never been more important. We must do all these things our Association does better than we have ever done it before.

We at the UUA must also continue to do those things which only a headquarters can do. We have a critical role at the national and international levels. We are your voice in national media, at the United Nations, in relationships with faith communities throughout the world.

Second, we must also go beyond, well beyond, congregations as we know them. John Murray, one of the founders of Universalism in America, told people to “Go out into the highways and byways of America. Give the people something of your vision.” The highways and byways today are electronic.

I am not talking about a substitute for the congregations we love. I am talking about additions to it.

There are an amazing number of creative ways our people are already reaching out. Congregations are using the web in all kinds of ways. Groups are forming that could never form in one congregation—like language groups and social justice issue groups and youth groups. The Church of the Larger Fellowship has completely revamped its web site. They have an app for mobile phones. The UUA just issued its first app.

I don’t know where this road will lead. No one does. Just look back 10 years. I do know this is a road we must follow.

You may have heard me say that in order to meet the challenges before us we must do three things: get religion, grow leaders and cross borders. Getting religion, growing leaders and crossing borders are ultimately spiritual challenges.

By “get religion” I mean connecting to what we most love, to what moves us most deeply, about what gives us unspeakable joy, about what binds us together as a people. The real religious question we must answer is not what we believe. The real religious question is what we love.

By “grow leaders” I mean the recruitment, training, nurturing and empowerment of leaders at all levels. The spiritual challenge here is learning to trust. When we learn to trust one another we release one another’s power.

The third great challenge is to cross borders. The spiritual challenge here is allowing love to overcome fear. The great borders that divide us from others are the artificial borders of class, culture and race.

I want to share a few highlights of what your staff is doing to help us all meet these challenges as we seek to support our congregations, to bear witness in the world and to share our faith.

Every single one of our programmatic initiatives is founded in the conviction that collaboration is essential.

  • Gathered Here
  • Strategic Review of Professional Ministries
  • Leap of Faith
  • Joint Venture with UUSC
  • Congregations and Beyond
  • International
  • Bearing witness: Beacon, SSL
  • Recognize UUA staff

Five years from now I hope to stand before you and give my final report as your president. I already have an outline. Here is what I hope and fully expect to be able to report to delegates at General Assembly 2017 and to the tens of thousands watching the simulcast across the country.

(Imagine, if you will, an older, grayer, hopefully wiser president.)

Here is the outline of my 2017 report:

My friends, not only is Unitarian Universalism thriving in 2017, but our prospects are bright. We are finally beginning to realize the potential we always knew we had. Most of our congregations are growing. We are a more powerful and respected voice in the public arena. Through our new outreach efforts we are engaging tens of thousands of people beyond our congregations. How have we done this?

We unleashed the power of love. We unleashed the potential of our people. We learned how to reach out in new ways. In other words, we got religion, we empowered leaders, and we reached across borders that had imprisoned us. We got a whole lot better at working together. Let me remind you of how this all happened.

Seven years ago we initiated a modest pilot program, rather immodestly named Leap of Faith. The idea was to link some of our finest congregations working as mentors with congregations that aspired to learn and grow. The idea came from ministers of our fastest growing congregations. Now congregations routinely form pairs and small groups to learn from one another. Now are we learning from one another, we are inspiring one another.

Way back in 2012 we met in Phoenix at what was called a Justice GA. Back then I said that the true measure of that GA would be what we were doing five years later. Our real goal was to raise our capacity to engage with people working for justice in our home communities. Today the seeds we planted back then are bearing fruit. We are doing amazing work. We have learned to be good partners and the relationships we have formed are transforming us as we find joy and fulfillment as we work to build the beloved community.

Our College of Social Justice, which was announced five years ago, is thriving. More than a thousand UUs, including youth, young adults and our religious professionals, have participated in service learning journeys in Latin America, Africa, India and the Philippines. The UUA and the UUSC are collaborating as never before as we expand our work with congregations.

Eight years ago we undertook a strategic review of professional ministries. We consulted with ministers, religious educators, professional musicians, seminaries, and others. Out of that came a plan that has guided us for the six years. We work together as never before with the UUMA to improve the continuing education of ministers. We have developed new tools for assessment. We are partnering closely with our seminaries. Our ministers and other leaders are more diverse than ever.

Four years ago we moved into our new headquarters. Wow. What a difference that has made. We have a modern facility with up to date technology that allows our staff in Boston and across the country to work together in flexible teams. We have accessible and comfortable meeting spaces for staff and lay leaders. We are hosting continuing education conferences and interfaith gatherings. We have a fabulous display area that tells the story of our past and our present.

What I am most proud of, though, is how we have reached out and engaged so many religious seekers and UUs who are not currently members. What began as a group of staff and creative UUs from across the country meeting in Orlando in 2012 is now a major part of who we are. Small groups are popping up everywhere, using online resources we developed. We are helping people to connect to our faith as never before—people who would not have found one of our congregations. Lots of these groups are attaching to our congregations. Thousands have joined our public witness efforts, making us a powerful force. Unitarian Universalism has gone viral. It’s about time! Thus endeth my 2017 report.

There is no reason we can’t do this! None. All of this is doable and practical.

I said at the beginning that ours is a time of challenge and opportunity. The religious world we have known is disappearing. A new world is emerging.

My friends, the opportunities for us in this new world are amazing. We need to do two things simultaneously. We need to help our congregations to adapt. We know how to do this. We have hundreds of thriving congregations who are embracing the possibilities.

Second, we need to reach out into the electronic highways and byways of America. We need to engage those people who think of themselves as UUs but are not members of a congregation and we need to reach out to the millions who share our values and are seeking liberal religious community.

We can do this. We just need to work together. We need to unleash our passion and our creativity. Love will guide us. Come, let’s build this faith together. Hand in hand. Mano en mano.

Thank you for all you do for this faith we love. Finally, I want to thank you for the privilege of serving as your president.

For more information contact administration@uua.org.

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

Last updated on Saturday, April 27, 2013.

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