Report of the President to the 1997 General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations

Rev. John A. Buehrens
Friday, June 20, 1997
Phoenix, AZ

Thank you, Denny! Four years ago, when Denny and I were elected at the General Assembly (GA) in Charlotte, I was handed a very LARGE tin cup, labeled Handing on the Future: A Campaign for Unitarian Universalism's Next Century. The goal was to raise an unprecedented ten million dollars.

When I began as President, nearly all the funds the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) had for extending our faith came from the extraordinary resources of one generous congregation out on Long Island—the Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Shelter Rock. This year, as many of you know, we closed out our capital campaign with the 'Giving to Grow' program. Through this growth and outreach program—and other district-based efforts like the Chalice Lighters program—we have raised over a million dollars in small, grassroots gifts to fund district-selected, district-based extension projects.

There have, of course, been many parts to the "Handing on the Future" campaign, and so many of you have participated in making it a success. And today I am delighted to announce that we have hit our mark: we have raised almost fourteen million dollars in current and deferred gifts, worth over ten million dollars today! Denny, please join me as we now literally hand over a large CHECK for that amount to a group representing the future of this Association.

Please join me in welcoming Rev. Jill McAllister, parish minister; Rev. Joel Miller, Extension Minister; Nurya Love Lindberg, newly-fellowshipped and about to begin her first ministry; Alyce Gowdy-Wright and Rob Cavenaugh, two children of our religion who now lead the way in Young Adult concerns; and Beth Minor of the Mass Bay District, a leader in our Young Religious Unitarian Universalist (YRUU) movement. These faces, my friends, are the faces of our future, which looks very bright indeed!

I want you to know what we've done and are doing with the funds we've raised through the "Handing on the Future" campaign:

  • we're helping new congregations with religious education staffing, and with loans for buildings or early land acquisition;
  • we're doubling the scholarship money the UUA has available for theological students;
  • we're lifting up our public visibility, on National Public Radio and in local congregations and districts as well;
  • we're recruiting for diversity and screening for excellence in ministry, and in addition, we're
  • making matching grants for professional development;
  • funding campus and young adult ministries; and
  • entering into growth-project partnerships with our districts.

Like every capital campaign, this one was blessed with VERY generous lead donors. One pledge is for over a million dollars, cash. Another, for half a million, fully paid. THIRTY gifts were for a hundred thousand dollars or more. But what pleases me most is that nearly 14,000 Unitarian Universalists gave to this effort. Some thought it would hurt annual giving to Friends of the UUA. Instead, over the years of the campaign, Friends has doubled its number of donors and increased its results by almost 50%!

Each GA we have had these last four years has focused on an area of our common life where we knew we could do better. In Ft. Worth, we examined our attitudes toward money. Congregations soon reported that their collective budgets rose 63% in a four year period [1990-94]. In Spokane and Indianapolis, we paid attention to the constituencies that will most influence the future of Unitarian Universalism: our young adults and youth. In the last four years, the number of UU campus groups has grown from only 18 to over 130! We may have tripled the number of youth groups and the size of youth participation. Pay attention to the more than 210 youth here at this GA—they represent the future for us all!

I hope the theme of this GA will be similarly galvanizing. Putting our Unitarian Universalist (UU) presence back at the heart of interfaith efforts for justice has been a big part of what Denny and I have worked on—going to the White House to meet about burned churches and racial justice; going on TV for the Religious Coalition on Reproductive Choice; on radio, to discuss spiritual support for same-sex marriage; to the Pentagon, where two UUs have served as Secretary of Defense, to talk about land mines and Bosnia; to the halls of Congress, and the plaza where freedom was sought at Faneuil Hall, to talk against discrimination and for campaign finance reform; to meetings of Councils of Churches and among those who have reason to hate churches. We've traveled also to India, where the one thing most needful in this world—the full empowerment of the world's women—is demonstrated now by our Holdeen programs; to Belfast for the IARF; and to Beijing for the World Conference on Religion and Peace, to talk with government and religious leaders about religious freedom and human rights; to the Parliament of the World's Religions and even to Rome to meet the Pope—where my dear wife, Gwen, advised me to begin, "Your Holiness, my wife, the priest, says...".

"We need not think alike to love alike," wrote Francis David more than 400 years ago. What the world needs are people who love it— passionately, religiously—who, without believing that they have all the answers or all the tools to do so, yet want to save in it what is whole and just and shot through with the beauty of grace.

Last week, at our older daughter Erica's college graduation, we heard Canadian intellectual John Ralston Saul say that nothing needs challenging more today than underlying assumptions of inevitability. Assumptions, for example, that increasing global economic competition inevitably means shedding safety nets so that children suffer. Assumptions that global cultural competition inevitably equates being religious with fundamentalism. That population explosions or ecological disasters cannot be avoided. "Leaders who preach inevitability," Saul warned, "soon find themselves accurately accused either of error or deceit."

So I won't pretend here that anything about our religious movement is inevitable. We are currently growing. I've dedicated eighty new or expanded buildings. Attendance is up. RE enrollments are booming. And I know that our WORLD Magazine subscriptions are up by twenty percent. And so if reported adult membership in our congregations is up by only 10% in four years, perhaps that has to do with the fact that we ask congregations to give to the UUA on the basis of that number!

But I am keenly aware that there is no assurance, no inevitability about continued growth in numbers, influence, diversity, or spiritual depth. That depends on our ability to learn to be faithful, though not creedal; to fulfill the implicit promise in this pluralistic, spiritual bridge-building movement by renewing its covenantal strength and wisdom.

This afternoon, just after lunch, you're going to hear a response to the Commission on Appraisal's current report, Interdependence: Renewing Congregational Polity. Be there! Plan to study the report. In depth. Plan NOW to join the next four Assemblies which will go forward with the theme: Fulfilling the Promise: A Re-Covenanting Process for the 21st Century. A committee of highly skilled and committed people which is chaired by Herman Boerma, our Trustee-at-Large from Canada, will guide us as we examine what it means to re-covenant, together. We do this because this tradition of ours doesn't ask the creedal question, "What do we believe in common?" Instead, it poses covenantal questions: "What hopes do we share? What are we willing to promise one another to fulfill our hopes? How shall we treat one another along the way?"

We need to make those questions, and our responses, more explicit than they now are. Fifteen years ago, thanks to the Women and Religion movement, we revised and renewed our statement of principles. The time has come, before this century is out, to re-examine and renew the purposes of both our congregational and our Associational life together.

This March I attended an important conference in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on the Free Church. That is our tradition. But every freedom carries with it an implicit responsibility. Thus membership in a non-creedal congregation still carries with it covenantal responsibilities. You may believe as you will, but you may not act irresponsibly. Congregations have a covenantal responsibility to their chosen leaders, and vice versa. Ministers have a covenant of service and responsibility that reaches beyond the local congregation. Congregations have, through the Association, its districts and other agencies, a covenant to keep as well.

As Thomas Jefferson put it, "It is in our lives, and not from our words, that our religion will be read." That, you will remember, came from a slave owner who thus condemned himself out of his own mouth. Our Journey Toward Wholeness has to be about more than race-- though God knows how blind we are to what my friend, Bishop Barbara Harris, calls 'unearned white male privilege.' Our spiritual journey has to be toward recognizing that we are in religious community in the first place because we are fallible, morally and every other way. We need one another. We need other fallible humans whose religious yearnings just may be deep enough to teach us together to be forebearing with one another, and never accept some easy proclamation of inevitability. Gene Reeve, a UU scholar of both Buddhism and Western process theology has said: "Far from having nothing to say, religious liberals have to proclaim, over and over again, against both religious and secular adversaries, the good news that the future remains open and the Fates are not in control!"

I'm aware, however, of how just short my allotted time is, both today and as President—even if I am re-elected tomorrow! So let me now try to give just a taste of the vision I hope that we will live toward in the four years ahead.

Covenantal relations begin in the family. We have a broad and inclusive sense of family, but I am concerned that we do more to support the marriage and partnership covenants which are at the heart of healthy homes. In the last year, new publications have appeared: Inward Springs, aimed at the needs of parents as religious educators; UU and Me, a new publication from the Church of the Larger Fellowship aimed at UU kids. I urge you to subscribe to both by visiting the Liberal Religious Educators Association (LREDA) and Church of the Larger Fellowship (CLF) displays here at GA.

We've completed the first phase of successful field tests for Our Whole Lives, a new multi-age curriculum on human sexuality which has so much promise, even beyond our own use, that the Ford Foundation has supported training for it and Planned Parenthood has joined in partnership to extend its use to other groups.

In the UUA's Religious Education (RE) department, Pat Hoertdoerfer's job has been redefined as one of 'ministry to families.' We've done new training for staff teams doing ministry to families in growing congregations, and we've supported a grant proposal to help congregations give religious educators fairer levels of pay and benefits. By 2001, I hope that we'll be doing far more in the area of adult, parent, and family education.

Which brings me to the role of communications in good covenantal relations. In a hectic world, paying attention takes spiritual discipline. And getting people's attention requires ever-improving communications strategies. Today I want to introduce our new Director of Communications. He's had a stellar career in journalism: a news editor at the New York Times, a features editor at the Chicago Tribune, managing editor of the Kansas City Times, founding editor of Jazz magazine, and an electronic publisher to boot. Best of all, he's a devoted UU, who was serving as president of All Souls Church in Kansas City, MO, when we recruited him. He says he's embarrassed having the title "Editor in Chief of the World," but he secretly loves it, and he's got other plans as well. They include a bimonthly newsletter focused on congregations and aimed at supporting and building lay leadership, to begin this coming year, and a quarterly bulletin for supporters of the Association, as well as periodic pastoral letters from yours truly. Join me in welcoming Tom Stites!

Cutting-edge publishing—about issues of gender, race, religion, education are the hallmark of Beacon Press, headed for the last eighteen months by Helene Atwan, whom we recruited from the tough competition of New York publishing. The work of Beacon Press continues to make a courageous witness that should make all of us proud. There's only one way for a small, independent publisher like Beacon to survive these days, however, and that is to expand.

The UUA Board and I have agreed with Helene about that, and several months ago, the right opportunity presented itself, in the form of 41 Mt. Vernon Street. So we've bought her a little something. A new, bigger building! Helene, come get your present!

This is 41 Mt. Vernon Street, just a short block from Beacon's present location. A six-story building, being vacated by Little, Brown and Company because they got devoured by Time/Warner and downsized in the process. Giving us the chance to buy a building for which they first asked $6 million for just over half that amount! To do it with next to no impact on our services or programs! To sell 53 Beacon, which we could not make accessible. To convert Beacon's present home to housing you, when you visit, just like its neighbors, Pickett/ Eliot Houses. To accelerate our effort to show that accessibility, as justice to people with physical limitations, can be provided—even in old buildings and in historic districts!

The issue of which I spoke a moment ago—accessibility—is a new emphasis of "Faith in Action: A UUA Dept. for Diversity and Justice." Another person who has joined the UUA Exec staff recently is Mel Hoover, as co-director of Faith in Action. You know him, but I'd like him to stand for just a moment, along with Jacqui James, who is the person on the Faith in Action staff to contact about resources on accessibility.

Twenty years ago, with the Women & Religion resolution, our movement began tackling, systematically and persistently, issues of sexism. We're not through, and probably never will be. This year, our UU Women's Federation, a major resource in the effort, had to face financial limitations and cut its staffing. No matter how conscientious we are, because we are a part of a society in which sexism, homophobia, and racism persist, we'll never lack for work to do, starting with ourselves.

But this year we reached the point where 50% of our active ministers are women. No other denomination I know can say that. Ministerial salaries, as I often say, have suffered, clearly as a result of the subtler forms of sexism. But we're tackling that, too. If you want to know how, please see Dr. Ralph Mero, Director of Church Staff Finance.

My vision for 2001 is that I'll be able to say that in the '90s, on my watch (unlike the two decades preceding) compensation for people serving our congregations will have risen faster than inflation; that at least half our congregations will provide "fair compensation." This cannot depend just on "25," however! In today's environment, for example, it will soon be no longer possible for the UUA to provide health insurance in every state. What we will have to do is what we are already doing—subsidizing health insurance for those most in need. Capital campaign funds are already helping. So will an impending agreement with the Unitarian Service Pension Society. In addition to increasing benefits to our oldest retired ministers and their spouses, that agreement will free up $1.3 million as an endowment for new need-based aid.

Let me close with a further word about ministry. I continue to believe that we cannot flourish as a movement without theologically reflective and trained leadership. This does not mean, however, that ministry is something that is, or ever can be, done for you, by even the best trained and most devoted of professionals. Neither can your religious living. What we should expect from those who minister to us is that they should equip us with the insights, the freely chosen disciplines, and the spiritual zest to realize our own potential in 'the priesthood and prophethood of all believers.'

I continue to be deeply grateful for the opportunity you give me to make the leadership of this association truly a shared ministry—shared with Denny, with Kay, a wonderful, hard-working UUA staff, with all of you. By 2001, maybe we'll even realize some new ways, short of going to seminary, to equip more people for shared ministry. Think what not just a quarter of a million UU 's—but a quarter of million who all see themselves as sharing a ministry, a ministry of interfaith cooperation, justice-seeking, of civic healing—might do!

Twenty-five years ago tomorrow I entered the covenant called marriage with my partner in ministry, Gwen Langdoc. Four days later, she was ordained by an Episcopal bishop who had the wisdom to say to both of us, "Try to remember which vows came first!" As I now complete my first four years as your President, I ask you to join me in thanking the person who helps me live, every day, a life of both ministry and of interfaith cooperation—my wife, Gwen! Thank you, and blessings for the way you allow service to this Association to enrich both our lives!