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Gathering for Purpose and Future of GA, General Assembly 2014

General Assembly (GA) 2014 Event 503

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This report is part of a longer event. Go to General Session VII for the complete video and order of business.


THE MODERATOR: Look who's here. Donna, why don't you introduce these fine folks?

DONNA HARRISON: So, I'm Donna Harrison, member of the board of trustees, AND I have here with me the Reverend Dr. Susan Ritchie, who does not have a puppet friend with her. Denny Davidoff, a previous moderator of this assembly.

DENNY DAVIDOFF: Could I try out to be Susan's puppet?

DONNA HARRISON: And the Reverend Clyde Grubbs, who is also a UUA trustee.

So, we're actually super excited to be here to talk to you today. We went early, that's how excited we are. So we've been talking as an association, and on the board, for a long time now, about how to make our General Assembly, and indeed, our association, more democratic. And in October of 2013, the UUA board established a working group consisting of members of the Board of Trustees, on the topic of gathering for a purpose, transforming General Assembly. And I want to say a little bit about the spirit with which we are engaging in this work. We truly have not made any decisions, or even recommendations. We're not going to float something today for you to vote up or down, even though with in General Assembly, that's what we do. We vote. We put things forward. We speak pro and con. But we want this conversation to be a little different. Precisely, because we can imagine expanded expressions of our democracy. Not just for General Assembly, but for the whole association. We want to engage the collective wisdom of our community in imagining possibilities and opportunities for the future, long before we narrow things down to specific proposals. And we want to honor now, and going forward, the many reasons why we gather, which extend far beyond doing the governance work of our association. And that's why we've formed this panel today, to share with you what we've talked about, so that we can continue these conversations together. And before we start, we'd like to ask you some questions. And this isn't something you need voting cards. You can just raise your hands. So Denny, do you want to start with a question?

DENNY DAVIDOFF: A question. How many of you are here as delegates with the cost covered by your congregations? Thank you.

More questions? How many of you were elected as delegates by your congregations with a careful measurement of age, racial identity, gender identity? Raise your hands if there's a process in your congregation for doing this.

CLYDE GRUBBS: How many of you are going to have organized report packs about the content of this General Assembly when you go home, and figure out ways of implementing the decisions?

DENNY DAVIDOFF: How many of you are retired?

CLYDE GRUBBS: How many of you are youth? Some have volunteered to be youth again.

DENNY DAVIDOFF: How many of you have come from congregations where there has been a process to discuss the business of the upcoming assembly?

SUSAN RITCHIE: So I'm looking for my people now. How many of you would be here, if the only thing we did at General Assembly was governance work? Bless you.

DENNY DAVIDOFF: You're saints.

CLYDE GRUBBS: How many of you would be here, if all we did—if we never did any governance work, we just did parties?

DENNY DAVIDOFF: How many of you would come to a gathering of Unitarian Universalists annually that only had business biennially?

CLYDE GRUBBS: Every other year. Would you come if it was every other year?

DENNY DAVIDOFF: No, the parties would be every year. The business would be every other year. You got it Jan, right.

DONNA HARRISON: And then learning.

DENNY DAVIDOFF: The teaching moments.

DONNA HARRISON: OK. So those were kind of fun, and I think that there are a lot of information there. It's pretty consistent with a lot of what we've seen over the years, as we've asked these questions over and over.

DENNY DAVIDOFF: Over the decades.

DONNA HARRISON: Over the decades. So, we're going to tell you the story of the conversation that we're actually, today, engaging in a conversation that has been going on for a very long time. And so, Susan Ritchie is going to share with us, the history of how we gather, and how we have discussed changing gathering throughout our history. Denny Davidoff has a unique perspective to share with us, having chaired the team, the committee that took the last really hard look at this, the Fifth Principal Task Force in 2009. And Clyde Grubbs, always, has wisdom to share with us, and we will hear from him. And then, I'll finish up by sharing where we are in this conversation on the UUA board of trustees, what we have done so far, and what we will be doing in the coming year. So, Susan.

SUSAN RITCHIE: Yeah, thank you. Donna asked me share with you, how in the past we'd gather. Our notion here, is that it might be liberating to know that things haven't always been exactly the way they are today. So, to begin with the Unitarian side of our story, the first gathering of Unitarians who so identified, was the American Unitarian Association in 1825. And this was just a group of 44 individuals. No delegates from congregations, no sense of representing congregations. And these 44 individuals came together to do the business of Unitarianism that they felt congregations could not accomplish all by themselves. So I hope you'll be as amused, and delighted, as I was by what they decided.

The most pressing the order of business for this original Unitarian Association would be, they decided that they must immediately publish a novel. I kid you not. The first action of the American Unitarian Association was the publishing of a New England tale, a novel that includes nowhere within it, the word Unitarian. It's actually a charming novel. It's about a sweet Quaker girl who was victimized by people who would become evil by virtue of their belief in the Doctrine of original sin. It's a great read. I recommend it to you.

DENNY DAVIDOFF: I'm waiting for the movie.

SUSAN RITCHIE: It would be an OK movie, actually. It wasn't until just about after the time of the Civil War, that we had any Unitarian body that sent delegates to meet as congregations talking with each other. And this was a National Council that was established by Henry Bellows. And that body, however, didn't do the business of the association. That body talked about large, theological questions.

What did it mean to be Unitarian? What did it mean to be Unitarian in that particular time, and that particular place? And so, these two different bodies, the one that did the business work, and the one that did this larger work of theological discussion, continued parallel through the end of the 19th century. Beginning of the 20th century, those two bodies merged under the Unitarian Universalist Association. But still, the American Unitarian Association kept two separate meetings, one in the fall, and one in the spring. The one for business, the other for larger conversation.

At the time of consolidation, you begin to get something that might look more familiar to you, as GA today, in that we had delegates from congregations coming together to do the business of the association. But if we could transform our self back to that first meeting, after consolidation, you probably wouldn't recognize a lot of what we see today, because those delegates really were just delegates there to do business. And the number of those delegates was small enough that all of that business could be done within one hotel ballroom, clearly not our situation today.

So what happened most after consolidation, was the growth in numbers of people attending General Assembly, and people starting to attend General Assembly for reasons other than just doing the delegate business of the body. And so, you began to see General Assembly be a place where people came for continuing education, and for leadership development, and the numbers began to grow.

And as the numbers began to grow, it also became an opportunity for other things. It became a place to vie vital chalice [INAUDIBLE] It became a marketplace. It became a place of meaning. And perhaps, more profoundly, as the numbers of folks attending grew significantly, it became an important spiritual home for folks who have identities that might be minority within their own congregations. But where here, they can come together and find a sense of caucus, and empowerment.

And then finally, the development that happened was fairly recently, and most spectacularly, realized in Phoenix. This understanding that when we come together as a large body, we have opportunities for witness. So I wanted to very quickly back up, and tell you what the Universalists were doing, and then we'll go on to Denny to hear about the Fifth Principle Task Force. So the first Universalist gatherings were all fairly small regional gatherings, but they were huge in number.

In 1838, in Akron, Ohio, you could get out 4,000 people for a small regional gathering. Now what were they doing at these gatherings? Well they did do business, but they did business the Universalist way, which just meant that they first had this very careful system of having delegates, but they pretty much soon decided that anybody who wanted to vote on business should be allowed, because you all come. It's all good.

So why they did business, why they gathered, clearly they didn't gather for the purpose of business. They also did faith revival when they gathered. They would hear preaching, and they would worship together, but I'm pretty sure that wasn't the reason they gathered too. Here's the funky thing about those Universalists, they gather because they like to see each other face to face.

So those regional assemblies, though, gradually changed. And after the Civil War, the state conventions took over the functions of the regional assembly. And there was widespread conversation in the Universalist world, and concern. The concern was expressly stated as, if the state conventions take over our gatherings, there's going to be more programming, and less joy.

So finally, just to let you know, part of this conversation is about the concern that General Assembly hasn't been economically accessible. And you should know, that this has been on the radar of General Assembly since immediately after consolidation. The very first year after consolidation, there was concern to establish a travel equalization fund, that might make it more possible for people to be here. That proved incredibly complicated to administer, and it was then, shortly thereafter, that we had these first conversations about biennial General Assemblies. So, the bad news is, we've had the same conversation for a long time. The good news is, I think we're finally learning to change the question, to not just be about what General Assembly is, but what kind of democracy we want for all of us.

So anyway, as we go forward, I hope we can find ways to celebrate all the many reasons we have gathered, and all the gatherings we've had for absolutely no reason.

DENNY DAVIDOFF: So Susan, One of the pressures volumes in my library at home that a friend of mine's, who's not a UU, found at a book sale in Durham, North Carolina, is the bound, hard copy minutes, and program, at all the speeches at the centennial meeting of the Universalists in Gloucester in 1870, I think '78. And there were 10—try to imagine 10,000 people camping in Gloucester, with the women in those long skirts, and the guys in their wool jackets, and anyway.

So one of the big issues at that centennial meeting, was how are we going to fund our theological schools. It was the big issue. In 2007, I was honored, and I might say genuinely delighted, to be asked by Gini Courter on behalf of the UUA board of Trustees, to serve as chair of the Fifth Principal Task Force. Charged to imagine a more democratic, a more inclusive, a more diverse, General Assembly. Or, gathering to govern.

Imagine, we were charged, and make recommendations. So, my colleagues, who I want to name, Joe Sullivan, Esther Rosado, Daniel O'Connell, Jackie Shanti, Barbara Prairie, Mark Givens, and for a time, until he became ill, Jose Ballester, and I went to work. We examined the history of our UUA governance, much of which I have personally witnessed, since I started coming to General Assembly in 1968, and have missed only three since then.

We fretted about the disenfranchised young people of color, sister and brother Unitarian Universalists who could not afford to be delegates, because they lacked the money, or the time, or the influence, or all of the above.

We fretted about the congregations whose isolation, or culture of anger, kept them from participating in governance as members of the UUA. We considered annual versus biennial meetings. We thought about, in 2007, technological opportunities, and thought about the implications of then emerging policy governance. We interviewed staff at the Presbyterian Church USA, the United Church of Christ, the Episcopal Church of America.

They meet triennially, by the way. And the Union for Reform Judaism. We talk to them about how they gather denominationally. We met many times. We were very serious. We debated earnestly. We were acutely aware of our frailties. We made recommendations, which were radical and imperfect.

We met our report deadline, December, 2009. And in January of 2010, Joe Sullivan and I met with the UUA board in San Antonio, Texas, to discuss the report, and its recommendations. And I vividly remember ending that conversation with a warning.

Do not to ask the General Assembly to transform itself, until you, the board of trustees, have modeled by transforming yourself. And we have seen that has happened. So seven years later, it's time to move the conversation about transformative governance forward. Carefully, sensitively, pragmatically, and sustainably.

Two, really brief, personal reflections. I have been a board member, and then a staff member, of Meadville Lombard Theological School since 2002. And I know, bone deep, that radical transformation, mission based, can work. I have lived through that history, and I want to testify that it is risky. It is scary. It is hard to do. It requires failure. It requires initiative. It requires experimentation, and a strong will. But it can happen.

And my second reflection is, my friends, democracy is messy. And it should be. As we move forward, welcome the messiness. Welcome the discomfort. Welcome the heated exchanges. We, the member congregations, of this great faith community that is the Unitarian Universalist Association, can handle it. We will not break. We will be better for it.


CLYDE GRUBBS: As we've been developing this idea, we need to ask the question, how—what is democracy. If we're seeking to democratize the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly, is that the place to start? Perhaps we should start one step back.

How do we democratize how the 1,000 congregations, and all of the new and emerging groups within Unitarian Universalism, participate in making the decisions that shape this movement, this association of congregations, which is the Unitarian Universalist Association? How do we participate in making those decisions? And then we need to ask, not is the General Assembly, as it's been conceived, the way to do that.

The word technology. Technology is a method, a method by which a device, a construction, by which people solve problems. By which people organize, and do things. So in a sense, as Susan has outlined, the invention of this technology, is a 19th century technology. Bring lots of people together in the same room to deliberate on decisions, is a 19th century technology. Improved? Improved by the 20th century? Improved now that we're in this time? We're making improvements in this, but perhaps this way of making this, is there are many decisions we could make in another way. So that's a serious question that we need to ask.

The next question, and this is the financial question, this particular technology called General Assembly, if you add up all of the expenditures that all of you have made, and the association has made. Is probably conservatively $6, $7 million. $6, $7 million. With all the personal expenditures, all the air fares, all the hotel bills, all those breakfasts, and meetings, and all of the meals, and we're paying hotels.

I didn't even include the tips. $6 million. Could we find, in our hearts, in our brains, a way to use $6 million to make decisions for our assembly, and find ways of gathering that do not involve convention centers, expensive hotels, and all of those questions. So those are part of the questions that we need to ask, because there are other ways, if we allow ourselves to think about it, to get together, and gather, and make decisions that affect our association, without saying, this is the way we have always done it.

We've always come together, and now we're going to bring 6,000, or 4,000 people together, and it's a good thing because that helps the General Assembly Planning Committee break even. So we make commitments to these hotels long in the future, and it becomes a very big concern to break even.

DENNY DAVIDOFF: So you know, historically, Clyde, I was the chair of the Planning Committee in 1989, when we met at Yale University. A whole other story. But it was then that we said, we can't meet on a college campus any longer. We're too big to do that anymore. And we wax nostalgically about Ohio State, and Bowdoin—

CLYDE GRUBBS: And Bangor not so much.

DENNY DAVIDOFF: --I actually like Bowdoin. Anyway, but the point is, that the way we construct conversation when we stay in the box of thought, is well, we couldn't be on a college campus, so we have to be in the conference center and hotels. Then we stop with the choices. We don't think of, well what else could we do with $6 million. And we'll go on forever.

CLYDE GRUBBS: We need to ask ourselves. The way I was taught, my people taught me to make decisions for the generations to come. When you think, you have to think about, how is this going to affect generations to come.

DENNY DAVIDOFF: Donna's body language suggests that there are two other people in this conversation.


DENNY DAVIDOFF: No you're fine. We're just enthusiastic.

DONNA HARRISON: We're enthusiastic, and wanting to also be respectful of time. I would hate to mess up our ending on time, after we were so far ahead. So what I would like to do—

DENNY DAVIDOFF: Take control.

DONNA HARRISON: --I am going to. And the Tech Deck is back there going, they're off script.

CLYDE GRUBBS: We've got three more important things. Go on.

DONNA HARRISON: I want to bring us to where we are in the conversation today. So Denny mentioned, that she challenged the board to not take this up until we had transformed ourselves. And in March of 2010, the board made a commitment to transform governance, and we committed to do three things at that time. We committed to transform the board, and the way that we elected the moderator, and the president, and we did that. This assembly voted those bylaws in, and you have these smaller board, a moderator elected a new way, and a presidential nominating committee that is working. We also committed to transform the way that governance is done in the districts, and to begin to explore other ways of doing governance in that middle judicatory, the districts, or the regions, and that conversation is thriving. And now, we take up the question of what to do with how we govern ourselves together through General Assembly.

So I'm kind of ready for that first slide I have, if the Tech Deck has it. In this last year, when the board began to talk about this, we started out thinking about specific proposals, because we had those proposals and recommendations from the Fifth Principle Task Force. And we wondered about many things, biennial General Assembly, how many delegates should we have, and so forth.

And as we began to talk about those, we ultimately concluded it was way too early to talk about specific proposals, because we didn't have a common view on how to assess those proposals. We had not really agreed on what we were trying to accomplish as we came together, and what our values were that were going underlie the decisions that we would make. And so instead, the board began to work on a set of principles and values that will underlie our decision making process going forward.

And we've been talking about these values for a very long time. And for those of you who came to the pre-GA webinars, we previewed those. We edited them at our board meeting earlier this week, as I told you we would, and it seems like a long time ago, but I think it was four days. And so, we have the same concepts, but I think we've tightened up the language and made it more clear.

So there are four areas of values that I'm going to go through and share with you. Values around inclusivity or inclusion, governance, why we gather, and our commitment. So let's first look at the slide around inclusion. So I'll just talk about these principles. So we envision gatherings for Unitarian Universalism that are more inclusive than what we experience with General Assembly today. We envision governance that incorporates a wider range of multicultural decision making practices. And Clyde talked about how this construct is a specific construct.

It's an A model for making decisions in a large group, but it is not the only model for making decisions. We are committed to addressing the barriers of cost, time, and physical accessibility, that create obstacles to inclusion. And we envision the UUA and the congregations working together to make this happen as part of our counter-oppressive commitments. And this last one is really important, the UUA, and the congregations together. We talked on the board, about how the congregations, and our lives in the congregations, is the source, the foundation, of generosity, and that if we're going to do this, it will take both the congregations, and the UUA, working together.

So let's look at the governance So for governance, here's where we are. We believe that we need ways for the congregations to provide governance direction to the UUA, and that this may, or may not, be accomplished through large, physical gatherings of Unitarian Universalists. And we envision a model where we leverage 21st century technology to enable broad based participation in the governance work of our association. And we've certainly started that work with our off site delegates. And then, we envision a governance environment where the participants are ever more informed, accountable, and prepared. And as you read these, think about, do these reflect the values of Unitarian Universalism. What's missing for me?

Let's look at the Why we Gather slide. So we've named two statements here, and I'll tell you a little bit about the feedback we got at the workshop we had earlier this week. So the first one is, we gather for many purposes. We can imagine even more, including gatherings for congregations come together and explore the theological and cultural direction for Unitarian Universalism. And that builds on that fall and spring meeting concept that Susan described earlier. And we recognize that many groups, particularly identity based groups, are reliant on, and empowered by, large gatherings, and we are committed to honoring those connections. And the feedback we got in the workshop, was that we might think about adding a statement, in this section, that talks about some of the spiritual reasons and the religious reasons that we have for coming together.

And lastly, our commitment. This really talks about how we are willing to change whatever we need to change. We are committed to changing our bylaws, our processes, and our customs, as needed to fulfill this vision. And we are committed to creating space for many voices. So we would like to invite you into this conversation, and let me tell you how that can happen. We held a workshop yesterday, and we had a room that was full of people. I think every seat may have been full.

And it was full of lively comments. We'd like to provide not only the participants from that workshop, but all of you who did not get a chance to speak, an opportunity to provide feedback on these principles. And we will be posting, within the next couple of days, and it'll be on the UUA board's website for sure, and we'll find a variety of ways to get this link out, a link to a survey that will give everyone who feels like answering, a way to provide feedback on these principles. And once we have that, the board and the working group, will begin to develop ideas for how we might accomplish all of the things that we've talked about. All of the people you see here, will be involved in that, and others.

The linkage work that Susan Weaver spoke about in the board report, where we will reach out to on the order of 100 congregations and others, will be focused on this very question. And by the time we come together next year, in Portland, We hope to have some alternatives, and ideas, for you all to engage on, for us to talk about, and to do linkage and get feedback when we come together in Portland, in 2015. So we are excited to begin this part of a very long conversation. Thank you.