President's Report, General Assembly 2019

General Assembly 2019 President's Report (delivered during General Session I)

The following final draft script was completed before this event took place; actual words spoken may vary.

We are living in difficult and dangerous times. These are no ordinary times, and our work as Unitarian Universalists—in our congregations, as leaders, and at the UUA must not be ordinary.

Two themes defined my first year as President. Number one—This is No Time for a Casual Faith. And number two—This is No Time to Go it Alone.

These themes shaped my earliest priorities. First, to clarify the UUA’s mission and put it at the heart of all we do. And second, to strengthen relationships across our Association, because when we work together, in relationship focused on mission, we amplify our power as a moral force for love and justice.

And right now, together, we have the enormous task of embracing bold institutional change that truly embodies the liberatory values of our faith: a beloved community where all people of all identities thrive.

And so my second year as your President has been about taking this work of mission and relationship and putting systems in place to carry the institutional change work forward for the long haul.

Describing the work of systems is not glamorous, but it is this daily shovel work that makes the noteworthy moments possible. It is systems that make change efforts lasts. And one part of this shovel work—is to clarify how organizations actually move change. This question matters not just to the UUA but to our congregations also seeking to unlock the power, the impact and the liberatory spirit of your communities.

So, how do you change the culture of an institution?

Five things are essential:

  1. A Clear Mission and Vision to name where we headed and who are we called to be.
  2. Leaders who are committed to the vision- Without leaders who understand and are invested in the vision, an organization will not be able to create substantive change.
  3. Ongoing skill building—Change is not just about a mindset, it requires real and specific skills and ongoing learning and skill development.
  4. Accountable relationships beyond the organization—Change cannot come only from within. Partnerships with directly impacted communities root us in the needs of those most impacted by systems of oppression.
  5. Strong relationships across the institution—Creating change for the long term requires always developing relationships, leadership and commitment across an organization.

This is the guide we are using to move institutional change at the UUA and you’ll hear it echoed as I dive more deeply into the work we’ve done this last year.

So, what’s first? Mission and Vision!

The UUA’s core mission is three fold:

  1. To Equip Congregations for health and vitality
  2. To Train and Support leaders
  3. To Advance UU Values on a national and international scale

Equipping congregations is the work of our Congregational Life Staff who Connect, Companion, Challenge and Coach our congregations, it’s resources like Our Whole Lives comprehensive sexuality education, Tapestry of Faith and our hymnals. It’s resourcing ministerial transitions and the UUA Pension and Health plan that help congregations be good employers. Great news this year, we launched an improved online interface for ministerial search and for the second year in a row, we had zero increase in UU Health plan premiums.

Training and Supporting Leaders is the work we do to credential religious professionals, provide continuing education and cohort gatherings for religious professionals, lay leaders and youth and young adults. A brand new resource launched this year is Leader Lab—an online resource [graphic] that has live and on-demand courses on everything from Board Governance and Stewardship to Nurturing Equity and Diversity in Congregations. In addition, recognizing, we have not taken a holistic look at youth ministry in more than a decade, we are launching a strategic visioning conversation around Youth Ministry, to identify needs and opportunities to strengthen our ministry to and with youth.

Advancing UU Values is the outward facing work we do to represent UUism to the wider world, it is our international partnership and advocacy work, and it is our justice work. It is the ministries of the United Nations Office, Side with Love, Love Resists, Congregational Advocacy, and Beacon Press.

All of this is possible because of your support. The UUA is the embodiment of the covenant that UU congregations make to each other to ensure resources, leadership and a larger presence of our faith is available to all of our congregations. And the annual support the UUA receives from congregations is the single most important source of funding for are core mission. You power our mission. Thank you!

One of the ways I think about Mission and Vision is that Mission keeps us grounded, Vision helps us soar.

Part of the hope for this 2019 General Assembly and the upcoming year is to be in conversation and discernment across our Association about our vision for Unitarian Universalism—The Power of WE. There are study guides available at this GA to take back to engage widely this effort to articulate a shared vision for our faith.

While this is in progress, we have articulated an operational vision to guide the changes we want to live into as the UUA staff.

Our vision is to create a UUA in which:

  • The aspirations of Unitarian Universalism as a beloved AR/AO/MC faith community are reflected
  • A UUA in which people of color and indigenous people, trans and non-binary folks, people with disabilities, those of all classes, backgrounds and identiies can thrive
  • And to support our congregations and communities, and their leaders, to be sources of justice, equity, compassion and liberation.

Living into this vision is not easy. We’ve seen very publicly, where we as UU’s have fallen short of that vision.

This year an article in the UU World caused real harm to transgender and nonbinary UU’s, their families, and allies. It is an example of the gap between our aspirations and our practice and demonstrates how we must do better. Since then, the UU World engaged the leadership of Transgender Religious professional UU’s Together (TRUUsT) and hired a non-binary Unitarian Universalist to edit a must-read collection of essays from transgender and non-binary UU’s. This also sparked conversations that will continue about how the Association’s magazine supports the mission of the UUA and how we will live into practice, one I first learned from EqUUal Access, “Nothing About Us Without Us.”

Another specific situation at the UUA in Congregational Life moved us to experiment with restorative circles to address broken relationship and harm. We are all human and we will break covenant. Therefore we need restorative practices that help us build the muscles of truth telling, learning from mistakes, building deeper trust and making our communities more just, equitable and inclusive.

Finally for the second year in a row we’ve had an increase in complaints regarding professional misconduct. Addressing misconduct is a critically necessary role of the UUA and one that requires deeper investment and comprehensive response systems. This is work we dedicated ourselves to improving many years ago—and we continue to try to make these systems more accessible, transparent and just.

In the midst of these mistakes and areas of ongoing growth, we have also made important progress on core promises we made coming out of the disruptions two years ago that called us to dismantle a culture of white supremacy in Unitarian Universalism.

  • Early in my first year, we implemented new hiring practices aimed at diversity and equity; and I am pleased to report the impact of these practices. Two years ago, the Leadership Council, which is the senior executive staff at the UUA was 12% people of color. Today, it is 42% people of color. Two years ago, the UUA staff as a whole was 19% people of color. Today it is 28% people of color. Today at the UUA, we have identity-based groups for staff of color and indigenous, for GLBTQ staff members, and for trans* and nonbinary staff. And we are not done, but this is a strong move forward.
  • Last year, I reported we would implement a culture change strategy within UUA staff. This year, I am thrilled to share that we have established the cross-staff JEDI team—Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion team—to help identify obstacles to full inclusion that involve power and equity and build the skills we need to create a diverse, equitable and just workplace at the UUA.
  • Last year, I asked you to be a part of our commitment to Black Lives of UU (BLUU) for their groundbreaking ministry. Individuals, congregations, and UU institutions pledged over $4.3 million dollars for the Promise and the Practice campaign. And this year, at this General Assembly, we are fulfilling our commitment of $5 million dollars to BLUU!

These are all significant successes in living into the promise and the practice of who we say

we are. But we know real change— change that can affect the outcomes for people of color and others staying in our movement and leading our movement must happen at the congregational level.

Here is how the UUA is working to be a strong partner to move change locally. And no surprise—it’s all related to mission.

Equipping Congregations

  • Last year, we said we’d develop the resources needed to live into cultural change at the local level.
  • This year, the Faith Development office created an ever growing page of resources just for congregations working to dismantle white supremacy culture and a White Supremacy Accountability tool to be used to review congregational Religious Education programs.
  • This year, the Central East Region held a “New Day Rising” conference that invited leaders from across the region to share their stories of success and failure in dismantling white supremacy culture in their congregations. This model is being looked at to bring to other regions and clusters.

Second Mission Area: Training and Supporting Leaders

  • Last year, I reported on the unprecedented number of religious professionals of color facing challenges or conflict in their ministry, and our commitment at the UUA to provide better support to these leaders.
  • This year, every region of the UUA committed to individualized support to every religious professional of color and this has taken the form of stronger start-ups, regular check-ins, help developing covenants, and coaching for ministers of color entering multi-ministry teams.
  • This year, we are improving our records to better track and understand the realities and trends for religious professionals of color so we can better serve these leaders now and into the future.
  • This year, we made stronger and clearer our commitments, including funding, for the UUA’s Finding Our Way Home retreat and the annual TRUUsT retreat and we are in the process of formalizing our relationship and financial support for Diverse and Revolutionary UU Multicultural Ministries (DRUUMM).

Advancing UU Values

Our third core mission area is Advancing UU Values.

Earlier, I spoke to how real institutional change requires being in accountable relationship with frontline and fence-line communities. This commitment guides both our justice priorities and how we move them.

This year, we clarified four key intersectional justice priorities through a strategic review unlike any undertaken in the last 15 years. This led to the creation of the Organizing Strategy team.

The four areas are:

  • Combating criminalization
  • Climate Justice
  • LGBTQ and gender justice
  • Electoral organizing

We know UU congregations are engaged in many different issues and campaigns locally, and this continues, and we want to model focus and long term relationship-building at the UUA, and invite as many people as possible to join.

This year the UUA supported actions at the border in Arizona and in San Diego. We showed up to support Dr. Christine Blasey Ford as she testified during the Kavanaugh hearings; at rallies to support reproductive justice; and to stand against discrimination targeting LGBTQ people.

In November, UU’s showed up in Florida to help secure the largest voter re-enfranchisement since the Voting Rights Act. This is what organizing can do! This is what our faith community in solidarity with grassroots communities can do!

And then there’s Beacon Press. Embracing these priorities as a guide for who and what they publish, the Press was on fire this year. As just one example, White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo was on the New York Times best seller list for over 6 months!

All of this is to say, that at the UUA, we are making it our mission to be a faith community that responds to the demands of this time.

And there is more ahead.

This report is by no means comprehensive. These are just a few examples of system shifts, and significant wins we’ve had this year. You can find out more about the work the UUA does through our brand new free publication—the UUA Amplify Catalog which lists our many programs, resources, and how to connect to them.

None of these big changes or the ongoing, core mission work of the UUA would happen without the attention, dedication and countless hours of your UUA staff—over 200 people—who work tirelessly and often fearlessly to serve this tradition, our congregations, and our leaders. Will you please rise as you are able so we can thank you? People often ask me what the best part of my job is—and # 1 is getting to work with the phenomenal staff of the UUA.

I want to invite the Leadership Council of the UUA to join me on stage. These are the strategic partners with me, with their teams, and with many of you who make our mission and our vision come to life. I am pleased to welcome an addition to our team—Mr. Andrew McGeorge, the incoming Chief Financial Officer of the UUA, who will be taking on this role on July 8th.

And finally, I offer my sincerest gratitude for our outgoing Treasurer and CFO, Tim Brennan. In Tim’s 13 years, he increased the financial health and management of the UUA’s resources and he made us a leader in Socially Responsible Investing and Corporate accountability. Tim, on behalf of myself, the Leadership Council, and the entire UUA—thank you for your dedication, your care and your service.

I want to devote this last section of my report to speak to the future, the challenges and the possibilities that lay ahead for who we can be as Unitarian Universalists.

In these difficult and dangerous times, we see people doubling down on a deadly status quo rather than choosing to be bold, cooperative and innovative to meet the challenges before us. And this is heartbreaking—because it is exactly in times like these when we need audacious leaders and communities that are willing to take risks, to show a new way forward—one that is life-giving, life affirming, and justice centered.

To do this, we need each other, and we need to invest more fully and generously in the power and impact of our congregations and our larger Association. A future of increasingly isolated congregations just will not cut it. We need one another to be the religion and the people we are called to be in this time—a multiracial, multicultural, multigender, multigenerational future of Unitarian Universalism. We can’t turn back now.

Our voice, our values, our ability to show up, these matter right now. And they are needed. There is more possibility ahead for our world and our humanity, but we need activists for love, and organizers for justice and democracy.

We are just 16 months out from perhaps the most critical election in our life times. One that will have real and immediate consequences for democracy, climate justice, for the lives of people of color and refugees, for women’s autonomy and freedom.

And so—I want to take these themes of action, risk, courage, and mission and propose to you that we UU The Vote!

Let us make our congregations into voter protection, voter registration, civic engagement, and mobilization centers. Let us show the difference the power of Unitarian Universalism can make. We already have a reputation as the people who show up—let’s build the reputation that we are a people that show up AND get others to show up.

We have a choice about who will be. Will we choose doubt, fear and moderation—or will we choose mission, courage, generosity and boldness? I know what I will choose!

I am grateful for this honor of serving as your President. I am inspired by what we all—and you all—are already doing and the ways we are embracing a deeper practice of community and faith, a bolder commitment to risk for solidarity and justice, and a more courageous expression for Unitarian Universalism. Let’s get ready for the mission, the vision and the calling that is ahead!

About the Author

Susan Frederick-Gray

Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray was the ninth president of the Unitarian Universalist Association. She was elected in June 2017 to a six-year term after serving congregations in Arizona, Ohio, and Tennessee.

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