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

Plenary II, General Assembly 2008

General Assembly 2008 Event 2004

Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) Moderator Gini Courter called to order the second Plenary session of the Forty-Seventh General Assembly (GA), held at the Fort Lauderdale Convention Center, at 8:30 a.m. on June 26, 2008. She then introduced Dr. Elisabeth McGregor, Chair of the GA Planning Committee, who lit the chalice, bringing people to mindfulness that "this is not just a business meeting or an exercise in democracy, although it is both. We are an assembly of souls gathered here in one strong body to do sacred work together."

Paul Rickter, Secretary of the Association, gave the preliminary report of the Credentials Committee. He reported that there were 1,286 delegates representing 460 congregations from all 50 states and the District of Columbia, 4 Canadian provinces, and from Japan and Germany, with 144 youth registered. A total of 2,871 were present as of the Thursday plenary, he said. The final credentials report will be given on Sunday, but on the basis of this preliminary report, Moderator Courter declared that a quorum "is and has been present since this meeting was called to order."

Courter then called on Beth McGregor to bring greetings to the plenary. McGregor wished the delegates "an inspiring, enriching, and not totally exhausting experience" during the ensuing days, and introduced the people who had worked for more than a year to bring this GA into reality. The members of the General Assembly Planning Committee are: Barbara Atlas, Joan Benziger, Lynda Shannon Bluestein (secretary), Ginger Brown (Vice-chair), Fred Cole, Melodie Feather, Denise Hall, Tim Murphy (Vice chair), Walt Wieder, UUA Board liaison Eva Marx, and David Fisher, 2008 District GA Coordinator. McGregor invited people to bring questions, concerns and ideas to Planning Committee members, but reminded them that if they would give those kinds of input on the evaluation forms, the committee could give them the "focused attention they deserve." She then dismissed the committee members to go back to their stations to resume their "constant battle against Murphy's Law."

McGregor also introduced the "hard working, clear thinking" GA and Conference Services staff, Janiece Sneegas, Don Plante, Stacey Dixon, and Melissa Saggerer. She reminded attendees of the responsive resolution last year asking the Planning Committee to consider devoting a segment of the opening ceremony to working together to "gain insight, skills, and experience with our own individual assumptions when encountering new people; and engaging in compassionate response and witness when we fall short of our aspirations…" McGregor explained that because they had the opportunity to offer the Cantata "Sources" in this year's Opening Ceremony, the Planning Committee decided to wait until next year to pursue the activities requested by the delegates in their 2007 action. She reassured the assembly that "…we have tried to interweave throughout this whole GA many other opportunities for confronting our assumptions…"

McGregor was clearly pleased to report to the delegates on the significant and rapid progress that has been made in the "greening" of GA. She reported that another step is taken every year in this area, and that the UUA has been recognized with the Silver Green Award from IMEX (the international meeting and exhibition planning organization) and the Twin Spires award from the Portland Convention and Visitors Bureau as best convention of 2007. McGregor reminded delegates that it is not too late for them to pay the $6.00 carbon offset at the UU Ministry for Earth booth, and she encouraged them to continue recycling.

The Moderator then introduced the Funtimes managers for the GA Youth Caucus, Caitlin Dubois and Michael Kusz. The two explained that Funtimes is what the youth like to call their caucus business meetings. "At these meetings, we organize our youth voice and hear from various people within the Association," Said Kusz. He invited any delegate who wished to hear youth perspectives on the issues before the assembly to attend Funtimes.

Arthur Tackman, Carol Agate, and GA Accessibility Services Coordinator Patty Cameron came to the stage to remind plenary attendees about accessibility at GA. Tackman, who is blind, introduced Matthew, who serves as his reader and assistant, and whom Tackman credits with making it possible for him to fully participate in GA. Agate spoke on behalf of the hearing impaired, explaining that hearing aids do not correct hearing in the way glasses correct vision. "They do not increase clarity, and therefore often wind up in the drawer." She showed the audience her assistive listening device, which does a better job, and invited any who might benefit from such an aid to stop by the accessibilities table and see what a difference it makes. Cameron told the delegates about "scooter and wheelchair etiquette," and requested that people not move chairs into the spaces left for wheelchairs and to honor the reservation of seats for the companions of those using wheelchairs and scooters.
The assembly was introduced to the first of four "Breakthrough Congregations," then treated to a 12-minute video about the first of four "Breakthrough Congregations" being recognized at this GA. Breakthrough congregations are selected because they are growing, dynamic, and provide a great example of how to 'do church right.' The UU Fellowship of Wayne County in Wooster, Ohio, is thriving because, in the words of it's minister, Rev. Elaine Strawn, "This congregation says 'yes!' " Newcomers feel warmly welcomed, there are lots of activities aimed at getting people together, people feel their talents are appreciated, and children are treated "as human beings, not merely small bystanders." The congregation has been honored with the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) designation for their new, environmentally friendly building. Rev. Strawn explained the success of the congregation: "I've been in churches a long time and churches are often filled with 'We've done it that way; it doesn't work' or, 'Never done it that way; it won't work.' This congregation says, 'Well, let's think about it… maybe…' and 'Yes!' "

After the video was shown, Courter introduced Rev. Abhi Janamanchi, Minister of the UUs of Clearwater, Florida, who introduced Lucas Benitez, a representative of the Coalition of Imokalee Workers, to the plenary. Through a translator, Mr. Benitez described the work of the Coalition in battling modern day slavery in the agricultural industry. Benitez expressed his gratitude for the support of the Unitarian Universalist Veatch program at Shelter Rock (New York) and for the thousands of UU signatures on petitions which helped them reach an agreement with Taco Bell, Burger King, and McDonalds to pay more for tomatoes so growers can pay higher wages to their agricultural workers. The agreement included a commitment from these companies to enforce a humane code of conduct in the treatment of their workers. Benitez concluded by acknowledging that the road ahead is still long, but stated unequivocally that "together, we will arrive at victory!"

Courter then introduced Rev. Orlanda Brugnola, current chair of the UUA Commission on Appraisal. She introduced the other members of the commission: Rev. Barbara Child, Michael Ohlrogge, Rev. Tom Owen-Towle, Megan Dowdell, Don Mohr, Jacqui C. Williams, Pete Fontneau, and Bev Harrison. The charge to the Commission is to fulfill the requirement of the UUA bylaws to review its second article (including the Association's Principles and Purposes) every fifteen years.

Child, in speaking about this work, described how the commission began its review by asking how they should weigh the input they were receiving. Should it be an institutional or inspirational statement? "Put another way," she said, "are we after a statement that people would like to have read to them on their deathbed?" Should they evaluate all suggestions solely on their merits, or should they consider the source? These and other questions were considered by the Commission.

Ohlrogge spoke about the hearings held and the curricula developed for use by congregations. Owen-Towle spoke of how the Commission tried to keep a balance between the "familiarity and stability that people like in their spiritual communities" with the need to be responsive to current needs. He suggested that congregations could learn from a technique the commission used to resolve disputes, that of asking someone "what it would take for them to accept another's point of view."

Dowdell said the Commission had considered their own differences and how they lined up with the "ideas, opinions and passionate statements" that have come to them. Mohr said the Commission had heard from those who wished the "language of our Principles and Purposes was more beautiful," and noted that others had pointed out that some important words seem to be missing. Williams relayed the concerns of those "who want to make sure that the welcome we extend is authentic and truly inclusive."

Fontneau told the delegates that after all the data gathering, about 80 or so "micro" questions remain, and guaranteed that the list would grow even longer before they draft the proposal that will be sent to the delegates. Harrison asked, "So… are we going to suggest any changes in Article II? The answer is yes. Do we know exactly what those changes are now? The answer is no." Harrison also reminded the assembly that only delegates will be able to vote on the proposed change, and invited any who are interested in the details of their efforts to look for them on the Commission's website.

Brugnola informed the delegates the first vote on Article II will be during next year's GA and will need a simple majority vote to proceed. The final vote—needing a two-thirds majority—will be taken during the 2010 General Assembly. She then invited anyone interested to come to the Commission's hearing.

At the conclusion of the report, the Moderator asked Sarah Dan Jones, GA Music Coordinator, to lead the assembly in singing When the Spirit Says Do, hymn # 1024 in Singing the Journey.

Courter then turned the podium over to the President of the Unitarian Universalist Association, the Reverend William G. Sinkford, to deliver his penultimate report (PDF) to the General Assembly. He took a moment to express his gratitude to his wife, Maria, who "not only tries to keep me sane, she keeps me happy." Sinkford shared the vision that guides his work and that of the UUA staff, which articulates three important goals:

  • Support the health and vitality of Unitarian Universalist congregations as they do their ministry.
  • Open the doors of Unitarian Universalism to people who yearn for liberal religious community.
  • Become a credible voice for liberal religious values in the world.

He then highlighted the accomplishments in each of these three areas.

Sinkford told the audience that the new, free, online, easily customized religious education curriculum, Tapestry of Faith, is receiving rave reviews. He said, "we are blessed by more than fifty newly fellowshipped ministers and seminarians of color, and are working closely with congregations to prepare them to accept ministry from "these very talented ministers of color," with a "gratifying number of congregations" expressing interest.

We have done well in offering youth leadership training at the national level, he said, but "Our support for youth at the congregational level has been woefully inadequate." He described last July's Youth Ministry Summit, which concluded that "real and lasting change" is needed, and called for a "shift in Association support to the congregational level," and "effective nurture and support for our BGLTQ (bisexual, gay, lesbian, transgendered, questioning) and youth of color." He acknowledged that the "road to implementation has been bumpy this year," but assured the delegates and youth present that his commitment and that of the UUA staff and board "could not be stronger. We will get there, together!"

Last November, the UUA's Growth Team invited twelve ministers from high growth churches of all sizes to come to Louisville, Kentucky, to share their insights. They were asked "What is the saving message of your congregation?" Sinkford reported that "These twelve successful, growth-oriented ministers said virtually the same thing: 'The saving message of my congregation is that we nurture the human spirit, and from that place of nurture, we are called to help heal the wounds of the world.' "We need to shift our attention away from unproductive debates about whether there is room for more than one belief system in our congregations and begin to focus on "what we are called to do," he said.

Sinkford then went on to describe the UUA's "first national marketing campaign since the 1950s," the 'edgy' ads which appeared in 2007-08 in Time magazine. He said one new UU wrote, "Thanks for putting the ad in Time. I would have never discovered the UUA any other way…my eyes have been opened to new people and new opportunities that I would have never imagined… Thank you. Thank you. Thank you."

Sinkford also described the UUA's recent foray into Google Adwords marketing. The ads, over a six week, period, generated nearly 10,000 new visitors to the "This effective and low cost advertising will be continued next year," said Sinkford. Sinkford's conclusion regarding this effort, "We are no longer content to remain invisible!" was greeted with enthusiastic applause.

Sinkford reminded the delegates, "Growth is at the top of our list of goals, but we are still only growing at one percent or less per year. Recently, funds from Association Sunday contributions have been channeled to our district to support growth initiatives, and we are supporting more of the innovative growth initiatives emerging from our congregations." He cited three examples of dynamic and proactive growth in congregations which could provide models for other congregations. First Unitarian Church of Albuquerque, through its 'branch ministries,' First Unitarian Church in San Diego, through its outreached to historically underserved communities, and First Unitarian Church of Rochester (NY), through its Life Now radio, available as a podcast, are leading the way in showing how UU congregations are growing in depth and in numbers.

Sinkford reminded delegates that Unitarian Universalists also played an important role in the California Supreme Court decision to make "marriage equality a reality in the largest state in the Union." Sinkford's mention of this landmark decision elicited thunderous applause from the audience. He warned delegates that the work for marriage equality in that state is not over, as there will be a referendum on the ballot this November which will attempt to "enshrine discrimination in the state's constitution."

As part of his public witness work, Sinkford visits Washington D.C. frequently. He said he wished he "could report that, after five long years, Iraq has become a peaceful nation, that our troops are headed home, that our prayers have been answered. You know that I cannot." However he added that "more than 13,000 of you signed our Petition for Peace" which have been delivered "to the Senate and House leaders on both sides of the aisle" And said that we continue to work with other groups to "speak truth to power in the halls of Congress."

Sinkford made it clear, however, that UUs support the brave men and women in the armed services, and gave special acknowledgment to UU military chaplains. Just a few years ago, there were only two UU ministers serving as military chaplains. Now, he said, "we have thirteen serving or preparing to serve in this capacity." Sinkford acknowledged the seven UU military chaplains sitting in the front row of the hall, and the delegates rose to give these brave women and men a standing ovation.

Sinkford also described his public witness efforts in regards to AIDS and in opposition of our government's international policy of funding only abstinence-until-marriage prevention programs. He got a hearty laugh from the audience when he mentioned his reminder to the Bush administration that "'Just say no' didn't work that well in the Garden of Eden, and it isn't stopping the spread of HIV today."

Directly following the conclusion of GA, Sinkford will travel to Japan, where he will be one of one hundred world religious leaders (one of only two from the U.S.) who will be crafting a faith platform to present to representatives of G8 countries. This gathering of religious leaders, which occurs in conjunction with the G8 economic summit, will offer Sinkford the occasion to deliver a speech to the gathered leaders on "Interdependence." He said, "I am honored by this unique opportunity, and I recognize that it reflects the high regard in which Unitarian Universalism is held internationally."

Sinkford acknowledged the concerns about this year's GA site and it's location within a Homeland Security perimeter. GA planners had been promised, when they reviewed this conference site five years ago, that the security perimeter would be moved. He urged delegates to attend GA forum scheduled for the next day at which this and related issues would be discussed, and noted that, regarding issues of immigration and security, the UUA is a "founding member of, and the first denomination to join, the New Sanctuary Movement." Sinkford encouraged the delegates to attend this year's GA public witness event, "Valuing All Families," which will be "the most inclusive and best-organized public witness event we've ever presented."

Sinkford emphasized that many of the initiatives he had described in his report were supported by contributions to the UUA's Now is the Time Comprehensive Capital Campaign. Almost 80 percent of the campaign's $50 million goal has been raised. Sinkford said, "This was the first major capital campaign for which the UUA did not rely on a small number of very generous major donors." Toward that end, he noted that the 2007 all-congregation event, Association Sunday, was very successful, raising $1.4 million for the campaign, And that this event will be repeated in the fall of 2008 to raise funds for excellence in ministry and lay ministerial education.

Sinkford lauded the shift in language apparent within Unitarian Universalism. "I hear people talk about our Association of Congregations, not the top-down, Boston-based UUA." And he said he was pleased that the advertising tag line, "Nurture Your Spirit, Help Heal Our World," has been so widely welcomed in our movement, with more than 85 congregations having purchased banners that proclaim this message. He also expressed his delight in the increase in rhythms and harmonies in our music, and the wider variety of languages sung.

Sinkford concluded his remarks by confessing that with the great hurt evident in the world, it would be easy to give in to depression and despair, and that even those who are financially comfortable, are feeling anxious. He said, "Ours is a theology of hope. 'Give them not hell, but hope and courage,' wrote John Murray, our Universalist forebear. We will need both hope and courage in the coming months. We need not despair. Our spirits can be nurtured. We can help heal our world. Fear need not win the day. Love can prevail. Love will prevail. May we make it so!"

As the hearty applause for the Association's President faded, Courter called Sarah Dan Jones back to the stage, where she led a reprise of When the Spirit Says Do. Then Sinkford returned to the podium, where he introduced the recipient of this year's President's Award for Volunteer Service, Eric Kluz.

Kluz has served in many capacities over the years, not only in his own congregation, First Parish in Cohasset, Massachusetts, and in the Ballou Channing District (BCD), but also as the national president of the District Presidents Association, and as delegate to the Urban Ministry of Boston for First Parish. He also co-chaired a successful capital campaign for his congregation and secured a $3 million endowment for BCD and the Cedar Hill Retreat Center in Duxbury, Massachusetts. In his professional life he is one of the leading green building designers in the country, currently focusing in the areas of sustainable design and the environment. Kutz has developed a specialty in designing buildings in accordance with LEED standards, and has completed his first LEED certified green building project in Shanghai, China. He also delivered a speech at the Tongji University in Shanghai entitled Footprints in Black Snow, in which he spoke of his childhood in Pittsburgh where the "belching steel mills literally turned the snow black." He has been overseeing the development of an "energy master plan" for the Association's historic buildings on Beacon Hill in Boston, and is helping assess improvements to bring these buildings up to LEED certification. Sinkford concluded, "Our Seventh Principle calls us to respect the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part. Eric Kluz lives that principle in his professional life, his personal life, and through his service to Unitarian Universalism."

Gini Courter called on the UUA Secretary, Paul Rickter, for the day's announcements, and, at 10:30 a.m., declared the Plenary in recess until 8:30 A.M. on Friday, June 27th, 2008.

Reported by Pat Emery; edited by Deborah Weiner

A row of Unitarian Universalists in military uniform.

A row of UUs sitting in military uniform at the Plenary.

Two youth speaking at a microphone.

Youth speak their minds.