General Assembly: GA Presentations: Presenter views and opinions do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the UUA.

Plenary VI, General Assembly 2006

General Assembly 2006 Event 4089

Reported for by Lisa Presley, reporter; Deb Weiner, Editor.

Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) Moderator Gini Courter called the Plenary to order, and then introduced representatives from the fourth Breakthrough Congregation to make a presentation.

Breakthrough Congregation: First Unitarian Society, Madison, Wisconsin

Courter introduced representatives from this congregation, one that has moved from the large to "larger" size: currently the congregation has more than two thousand members.

Congregation member Vickie Jones related a Garrison Keillor story in which "all the UUs were taken up in the rapture, and that what UUs want is closure." But she pointed out that Keillor had it wrong—what we want is discernment, not closure. First Unitarian Society (FUS) is a place where gifts are welcome, faults are forgiven, and where "I can be the person I want to be when I grow up." The congregation showed a video presentation, which included youth involved in a controlled burn to help improve the quality of vegetation and wildflowers on the church property, and relating the history of the congregation including the building of their building, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.

It was only after World War II, and more particularly in the last 20 years, that the congregation's growth has exploded, and it is at a rate unmatched for a city of Madison's size. Currently the congregation has more than 2000 members, affiliates and children involved—more UUs per capita than any medium or large city. People come for the good services which are provocative and uplifting, and they stay for other reasons such as the music program, social justice groups (including adopting a village in Kenya which is home to hundreds of children orphaned by AIDS), religious education (with over 100 volunteer teachers and 475 children in classes), and the challenging nature of worship and being part of an active community.

Craig Macomb, past president of FUS, says that their "breakthrough status" is not the application of one magical technique, but multiple excellent ministries, any one of which could be the main source for growth. There are the choir, covenant groups, and other programs for excellence—none of them designed as programs for growth, but all acting that way. Every one of the ministries of the church projects itself into the larger community in some way. FUS is a place for using personal gifts, and for connecting to community.

Executive Vice President's Report

Courter introduced UUA's Executive Vice President Kay Montgomery to present her report.

Montgomery, noting that it's difficult to explain, in just a few minutes, the variety and depth of the work done by UUA staff, introduced Taquiena Boston, Director of the Identity Based Ministry Staff Group, to present that group's work—which, said Montgomery, "goes right to the center of what's important, and is some of the hardest work that can be done. This group is charged with nothing less than transforming our movement, and making UUism more just and closer to our ideals."

Boston told delegates that Identity Based Ministry (IDBM) is about advocacy, education, and support for the many people who find their spiritual home in Unitarian Universalism. In the opening ceremony, she said, we were told that sometimes membership calls for sacrifice of identity and culture. Accessibility is more than a ramp; lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people need more than a rainbow triangle; multicultural diversity means more than a hymn in Spanish at worship or celebrating the holidays of many cultures. People of diversity need nurturing spaces that explore challenges, lift up their dreams, and embrace their culture. They want a faith that welcomes and affirms them as religious people.

IDBM has consultants who work with congregations on programs like Beyond Categorical Thinking and who provide info rmation about increasing accessibilities. Their primary role is to support leadership development and communities that hold up identity-based ministries. Staff work behind the scenes goes on in a variety of roles: as counselor, mentor, coach, advocate, and cheerleader, formally and info rmally as chaplains, facilitators of workshops and conferences, and as co-sponsors of retreats. We are, Boston said, "about building the world we dream about." She said there is curriculum under development, inspired by the Welcoming Congregation Program, to help with becoming more anti-racist, anti-oppressive and multicultural. This curriculum will be field tested in 2007, and available to congregations thereafter. Four years ago, Boston reported, "one of our visions was to work ourselves out of a job. We look forward to that loving and just spiritual home that welcomes, affirms, and includes all people." Montgomery then thanked all the members of the Identity Based Ministry Staff Group.

Montgomery then told delegates about the UUA's new weekly e-magazine, It debuted last August one week before Hurricane Katrina and made it much more possible for timely news to be delivered to UUs. In the first three weeks alone there were ten new stories about the impact of the hurricane. Yet timely news is only part of the mission. It also includes original essays, on-line only extras, and is designed to reach out to religious liberals and seekers providing a UU perspective on issues from the immigration debate to the DaVinci Code. is just the beginning of a new approach to the web, Montgomery said. Soon will be reborn, and Montgomery showed parts of the redesign. The new web site will allow easier navigation, with "breadcrumbs" to show how you got to where you are, allowing people to email a page to a friend, and providing printer friendly copies. Google maps will help people find a congregation near them. The new web site is under construction, and although there is software to help in the conversion, each of the thousands of pages that are being transferred need to be checked for accuracy and content. The Worship Web is also being redesigned by the Lifespan Religious Education Staff Group, and this is the first time that non-technical staff group will be able to publish their own web content. It should be unveiled before the end of the calendar year.

Montgomery told delegates that this is a year with more than usual number of staff changes, with long-time employees retiring who will be sorely missed. One among them is the Rev. David Hubner, Director of the Ministry and Professional Leadership Staff Group, who has "worked for the Association for eighteen years as a devoted, brave, pastoral and often very, very funny person. The Rev. Beth Miller will be moving into that position. John Hurley, a long-time staff person and "everyone's communication consultant," will be stepping into the position of Director of Communications. Chris Walton is becoming the Executive Editor of the UU World staff. Montgomery then introduced someone who is "neither retiring nor new but who can't be thanked enough," her "elegant" assistant Nancy Lawrence, who keeps the engine running for Montgomery, Courter and the Board of Trustees.

Montgomery closed her report by quoting from a chapel service that the Rev. Terasa Cooley, District Executive of the Massachusetts Bay District, gave. In that Cooley said,

Despite all the tumult, I find myself feeling an amazing sense of privilege in serving [our] congregations. For now that I am one step removed, I can see what I could not see close up: that congregational life is an extraordinary thing: that meaning is found, lives are changed, love is forged, in a way that could not happen anywhere else, even if it is imperfect, even if it comes with hardship and pain. That, in the midst of everyday congregational life, every once in a while the hard husks of our outward coverings break open and the tiny green shoots of scared love break through and find their way to the sun. It is up to us merely to nourish the soil, to water the tender shoots with our tears of recognition, and to remove the obstacles that block out the sun. And to wait, patiently, for what may come.

With that, Montgomery asked the delegates to show their appreciation of the UUA staff that "help you water the soil."

Bylaw Changes

Courter called for action on proposed amendments to the rules and bylaws section. First to be considered were amendments to Sections 4.11, 4.12, 4.14, and Rules G-4.12.2, G-4.12.4, and G-4.18.3, all of which are changes to the social witness and Statements of Conscience (SOC) procedures.

After the Chair of the Planning Committee, Linda Friedman, made the appropriate motion, the Rev. Linda Olson Peebles presented the position of the Board of Trustees.

For the past several years, Peebles said, "the Board has studied with many of you how to improve the process of how congregations can give religious witness and do so most effectively. These proposed changes do that for three reasons. First, they encourage more congregations to be engaged in the process. This will encourage that reflection. Second, these proposed changes have the support of almost everyone elected in the past four years to the Commission on Social Witness, the Moderator, Board of Trustees, the congregational leaders and the UUA Staff who are on the front lines and working with the media. Third, if UUs want to make a difference in the world, we will be able to be more focused and grounded authentically and speak more articulately on issues in the public arena. The Board voted 24-1 to recommend these changes.

Courter advised delegates that the discussion on proposed bylaw amendments would occur for up to fifteen minutes prior to entertaining any of the amendments that were presented during the mini-assembly.

Speakers in favor of the amendments cited the following:

  • The current pace of SOCs means that several statements that have been passed have not yet been implemented by congregations, and only a small proportion of congregations in our Association have voted for the statement we will be considering this week. The UUA has a 380 page book of statements, and too many of them have not been implemented.
  • The Rev. Wayne Arnason, a member of the Task Force that recommended the changes in the social witness GA process, said the Task Force never knew it would take eight pages of complex bylaw text to make these proposals. It is easy, he said, to believe there is something rotten in these pages, but it is the result of a two year process where the Task Force surveyed and listened to many people, held hearings at GA, and worked to provide a system that would make the process more effective. He recommended that congregations could set aside the week after Martin Luther King, Jr., Day every year to study the proposals, and make their recommendations by the deadlines.
  • A Youth Caucus representative said that these changes will allow us to have a more educated decision about these matters and more time to act on them. There will be greater incentive to participate, and that if we don't make a conscious commitment to make sure this work gets done, we will not benefit from any of our actions.
  • The Rev. Richard Nugent said that he had served eight years on the CSW and that during his tenure they spent hours debating possible changes, listening, doing surveys, speaking with congregational presidents, and they made whatever changes they could to improve the situation short of bylaw changes. He likened the way we need to do social justice work to a gourmet cook who takes the time to assemble and prepare the proper ingredients. Taking up a new issue every year showed us that it was more like a twenty minute recipe, and that just when people had started hearing about it, it was time to adopt the next one. Complex issues deserve and need more time for consideration.

Speakers against the bylaw amendments and change to the process cited the following:

  • One delegate said that she spent hours trying to sort out what these changes mean, and she doubts that most delegates fully understand how these changes would affect the process. She expressed concern that since only ten percent of our congregations are involved in the current process, how can we expect two and a half times that, or twenty-five percent, to take up the issue in half the amount of time.
  • Another delegate pointed out that the survey taken showed overwhelmingly that delegates want to adopt a SOC after two years, whereas the changes would make that after three. Those who wanted two issues to run in parallel were also low in the survey response. The world is changing so quickly that he feared that we would not be able to respond in a timely manner to issues that confront us.
  • Another delegate opposes these amendments for three reasons. First, the length of the process, second, the requirement for twenty-five percent participation by congregations, and third, the lack of responsiveness of UUA staff to carrying out the wishes expressed in the SOCs. If the CSW wants greater participation, than the SOCs should warrant more staff follow-through.

After these statements, Courter turned to the Amendment microphone. An amendment was proposed that would lower the participation rate of congregations from twenty-five percent to ten percent. The presenter of this amendment said that there was too great a chance that participation would be so low that we would never be able to adopt a SOC. Decisions should be made by those who "show up," not by those who don't and who thereby could grind our work to a halt. Other statements in favor of the amendment included results from the marketing community that finds a twenty-five percent return as virtually unheard of and abnormally high. Those opposed to the amendment said that we should be about raising expectations, not lowering them, and he pointed out that the theme of this GA is "right relationship," and right relationship means that if we can't get twenty-five percent of our body to agree, the proposal is not a matter of common conscience and we should not act. Another person also expressed concern that ten percent was too low for the passage of a SOC to really mean something, and if no more than ten percent were in support, the changes would not be well implemented.

Courter said she believed the delegates were ready to vote on the amendment to reduce the level of congregational participation from twenty-five to ten percent. The amendment failed, and debate returned to the main motion.

A speaker at the Con microphone expressed concern about the proposed process that would reduce the possibility of meaningful involvement. With only one issue at a time, if the issue doesn't strike a responsive chord in the congregation, they might not be involved in the process for several years.

A speaker at the Pro Microphone pointed out that if less than twenty-five percent are involved, how Universalist are we? We confuse, she said, our SOCs with acts of conscience, and if we poured as much energy into the cycle of study, action, reflection, and they study again, as we do on debating SOCs, we would show how serious we are. Several questions were brought to the procedural microphone trying to clarify the calendar and the timing incorporated in the bylaw amendments. Another delegate appeared at the procedural microphone and moved extension of the debate for a further five minutes, and that motion carried. Another con microphone speaker was in favor of all parts of the change except for the decreased amount of time for feedback, and the speaker questioned how the shortened time would increase participation.

Commission on Social Witness Chair Susan Smith explained the timing sequence to delegates. A Pro speaker said that he read in a book a quote that went something like, "an issue had been exiled as if it was passed as a resolution at a religious organization's general assembly," and he expressed fears that many of our Statements are more like the "flavor of the month" than something we truly embrace and implement. Quoting the Rev. Judith Walker Riggs, he said, "if you look at what we do, you will know what we believe." We must not confusing being and doing, he concluded.

A delegate moved to extend debate for a further fifteen minutes. The motion failed, and Courter called for a vote on adopting the proposed changes to Sections 4.11, 4.12, 4.14, and Rules G-4.12.2, G-4.12.4, and G-4.18.3. The motion carried.

Courter then declared the Plenary in recess.