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Governance for the next half-century

Why the UUA Board of Trustees is promoting change.
By Gini Courter And Tom Loughrey
Summer 2010 5.15.10

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Changing course (Robert Neubecker)

(Robert Neubecker)

The Unitarian Universalist Association is at a crucial moment in our history. We cannot take the survival of our movement for granted. In 2011, we will mark fifty years since the consolidation of the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America. We have much to celebrate, but given the breadth and strength of our faith, we confess a sense of unfulfilled potential. We can do better. For the next half-century, what is necessary for our faith to flourish? There is no simple answer, but part of the answer is a fundamental shift in governance. We need thoughtful congregational deliberation to make this shift.

“Governance” means to define expectations, delegate power, verify performance, and provide accountability. Over the last forty-nine years, at least five separate task forces have studied governance in our movement. All have described the same basic condition: Our governance is too complex. We elect leaders but do not authorize them to do their jobs; the Board of Trustees is too big to be effective; and General Assembly is too expensive—especially when many delegates are not accountable representatives of their congregation’s priorities. In short, these task forces have observed systemic brokenness in the governance of our Association, which make it nigh-impossible to define or fulfill expectations, to delegate power, and to verify performance. This complexity makes it impossible for us all—whether in governance, administration, or ministry—to do what is necessary for our movement to flourish. We are designed to fall far short of success.

The time for task forces and study groups is over; we need changes that will clarify roles, engage democratic participation, and align our resources around clear, common goals and values. That is why we, and other members of the UUA board, are making the following recommendations for improving our governance model.

Election reform. During every contested election for president or moderator, the candidates have told us that our processes for nominating and campaigning are not in accord with our values: The nomination process for these offices is opaque, and the election process resembles a secular political campaign rather than a leadership discernment process for a religious community.

In April 2009, the board worked with President William G. Sinkford and presidential candidates Laurel Hallman and Peter Morales to draft bylaw changes for the nomination and election of officers. These bylaw amendments were printed in the Final Agenda for GA 2009 and the Tentative Agenda for 2010, and will be debated and voted on by delegates in Minneapolis this year. We are committed to an election process in concert with our religious values.

A smaller UUA board. We continue to gain greater clarity about the appropriate work of the board and of the administration led by our president, the Rev. Peter Morales. Though the board is becoming more effective in governance, its work is hobbled by its large size. With twenty-four members, it resembles a small town meeting more than a board, and the expense is too high. We will hold GA workshops this year and ask the delegates at General Assembly 2011 to reduce the size of the board. Though every trustee risks losing his or her seat, our individual desires to serve pale beside our common purpose: to provide an effective board for the Association. We are committed to a future when the board will be nimble, agile, and ready to respond to a world that needs Unitarian Universalism more than ever before.

UUA districts. In an interrelated system one part affects another. As we look to reducing the size of the board, this raises questions about the role of districts, which were established in the bylaws to ensure a geographical distribution for UUA trustees. At a meeting between representatives of the UUA board and the District Presidents Association in November 2009, the group reached broad agreement that the Ends of our Association encompass the missions and Ends of the districts. There is continuing discussion about the current dual accountability of district staff—to district boards and also to the UUA president. Staffing in districts has moved toward shared resources through “regionalization,” raising questions about the continuing governance role of district boards. A conversation with district boards, the UUA board, and the UUA president is scheduled just before GA to determine next steps. We are committed to work on untangling governance so we can provide clear authority to the administration and accountability to our congregations.

Future General Assemblies. The UUA board dreams of a time when General Assembly is less about making statements and more about joining the lived experiences of our congregations and multiplying the power between us, when congregations gather to work together toward the same life-changing, world-changing mission.

The board has questions about General Assembly. In January, we received the report and recommendations of the Fifth Principle Task Force, which focused on our democratic process. The board needs to work in accountable partnership with member congregations—a partnership that could be realized at General Assembly. But, as the Fifth Principle Task Force report documented, attendees at GA are those who can afford to come and are rarely authorized to represent their congregations. We are committed to a General Assembly that represents the best work and thinking of our congregations.

Further, because our accountability extends to groups beyond member congregations—such as youth and young adults—our governance needs to include these voices. We need engaged democracy that joins the voices of current strength with the voices of emerging strength, forged in the crucible of our common values. Our movement depends on it.

Looking beyond governance changes, and in response to the question, “What would General Assembly be if its programs and workshops were designed to facilitate congregational health and growth?” the GA Planning Committee asked the administration to accept the responsibility to determine content for the majority of workshops at this General Assembly. That prioritization of resources and clarification of focus is a beginning, but more work is needed if GA is to fulfill its governance role as outlined in our bylaws.

What you can do. The recommendations being discussed are not minor “fixes,” but major changes to clarify our governance and make our leaders mutually accountable to each other and to our congregations. Some of the recommendations address problems that were thought to be too difficult to address forty-nine years ago. If we are to discuss these changes well and fully at General Assembly, delegates will need to study and discuss these changes in advance in their congregations. Here is a summary of the opportunities for engagement around these critical issues at the 2010 GA in Minneapolis:

  • Attend the workshop led by the UUA board entitled “Governance Transformed and Transforming” to answer questions and provide input to help determine what changes should be placed on the 2011 General Assembly Agenda to address future GAs, districts, and the size of the UUA board.

  • Participate in the mini-assembly and then vote in plenary on the proposed bylaw amendments for the election of president and moderator.

  • Attend plenary. The meeting of district presidents and trustees, the UUA board, and the UUA president and moderator will immediately precede GA, and will be reported upon in plenary, followed by a question and answer session about the report. The board will report in plenary on the recommendations of the Fifth Principle Task Force, and time will be provided for comments from congregations.

  • Schedule a General Assembly conversation for your congregation in May. The final list of plenary agenda items for the 2010 GA is available on UUA.org. Discuss the business items so your delegates can bring the best thinking of your congregation to the discussion and votes on all of our business in June.

The proposed changes deserve broad discussion. Please join the conversation in your congregation and at General Assembly 2010 in Minneapolis.


See sidebar for links to related stories, including UU World coverage of the changes proposed by the board and by the UUA administration.

Gini Courter is moderator of the UUA. Tom Loughrey is UUA secretary and the trustee from the Pacific Southwest District.

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