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Inside Scoop for Delegates: General Assembly Social Witness Process

General Assembly 2006 Event 1001

Sponsor: Commission on Social Witness, Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA)

Speakers: Rev Susan M. Smith, Chair of the Commission on Social Witness and David May, Commission member

The Rev. Susan Smith, Chair of the Commission on Social Witness (CSW), gave delegates the “inside scoop” about the two social witness processes at General Assembly: the Study/Action Issue (SAI) and the GA Action of Immediate Witness (AIW). David May showed the delegates that on the back of their voting cards is a summary of what will be voted on during each of the plenary sessions. Smith then gave an overview of how proposed bylaws amendments would change the SAI processes. She made it clear that it is the delegates from UUA member congregations that make the decisions, and that the Commission's job is to shepherd the process.

The Study/Action Issues which lead to a Statement of Conscience (SOC) are proposed by congregations and districts. The Commission on Social Witness reviews these proposals and narrows the field to 10 issues. The criteria by which the CSW makes its selections include whether the issue is already of significant concern to Unitarian Universalists, whether the issue resonates with UU historic, ethical, and spiritual values, whether it lends itself to study and action in ways that are practical for congregations, and whether the issue is not so narrow or urgent that it would be appropriate as an AIW.

After the list has been narrowed by the CSW, the Commission mails the “Congregational Directives for General Assembly Action” to all UUA member congregations. This is a ballot by which the congregations further narrow the field to five issues. Those five issues are brought before the delegates at General Assembly, who select one of the proposals as a Study/Action Issue for two years of study and action by congregations.

During an SAI's first year, the UUA's Washington Office for Advocacy prepares a resource guide for congregations and solicits feedback summarizing group opinions within congregations and districts. Based on this feedback, the CSW conducts workshops at the next GA showcasing what some congregations or districts are doing on the issue and solicits feedback from individuals.

During the SAI's second year, the CSW formulates a draft Statement of Conscience to the original congregations and/or districts which proposed the SAI. The CSW then rewrites the SOC and presents it at the second GA. There the delegates attending a Mini-Assembly may propose amendments. The CSW prepares yet one more draft, incorporating some amendments and prioritizing amendments not incorporated. Smith emphasized that only at the Mini-Assembly may amendments be proposed. The delegates debate and vote on these amendments in plenary and decide whether to adopt the SOC, hold it for another year of study, or reject it.

Smith noted that this year is different from most because only three SAIs were submitted, and only one was deemed to meet the criteria. The delegates at this GA will give that one SAI (S-1 Peacemaking) an up or down vote during the plenary session on Thursday. The delegates will also debate amendments to, and decide whether to adopt, the SOC “Threat of Global Warming” during the first plenary on Friday morning. This SOC, if adopted, will carry the entire weight of the UUA and will be used by the UUA Washington Office for Advocacy and congregations in witnessing at the national and local levels.

Actions of Immediate Witness, as their name implies, are issues of significance which require immediate action for our witness to make an impact. AIWs must be focused and specific and are often related to a date-specific event. They are initiated by individuals, but must garner the support of many delegates in a petition process before submission to the CSW. The CSW selects no more than six AIWs to present to the delegates to see if two-thirds of them wish to include them in the final agenda.

The AIWs so selected are the topics of Mini-Assemblies, at which delegates have their only opportunity to propose amendments. The CSW then meets, incorporating some amendments and prioritizing the others, and presents the AIWs to the delegates at the Sunday plenary for debate. Each of the proposed AIWs may be approved by a two-thirds vote or rejected. AIWs do not carry the full weight of the UUA, but they express the conscience of the delegates at the GA at which they are passed. The Washington Office for Advocacy takes appropriate actions to support the AIWs, and congregations are encouraged to implement them as they can.

Smith told the delegates that the CSW has received much feedback from congregations showing that there is a large gap between the desired outcomes of the SAI process and what it now provides. Many congregations feel they do not have enough time to properly study and act on the issues selected. Youth and young adults felt they were left out of the process in their congregations. Often less than 10% of congregations participate in the Congregational Directives. The CSW is proposing changes to the bylaws that will make the SAI process longer and less frequent, allow the national Youth and Young Adult caucuses to propose SAIs, and require at least 25% of congregations to participate in key elements of the process. The process would take four years, including a year specifically for implementation. Only one issue would be in the pipeline at any one time.

Delegates attending the workshop asked questions about the two proposed SAIs that did not meet the criteria of the CSW this year and about the proposed bylaws amendments. In response to comments that four years seemed a long time to study an issue before acting, Smith made it clear the congregations do not have to wait until the process is complete to act on the issues. Now the process seems to emphasize the statement. The CSW would like it to focus on the study and action. Delegates were encouraged to come to the CSW booth in the exhibit hall to continue the discussion.

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Reported by Pat Emery; edited by Margy Levine Young.