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Big changes proposed for UUA's General Assembly

Task force advocates fewer delegates, biennial schedule, and subsidies to boost congregational participation.
By Donald E. Skinner
1.11.10

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General Assembly, the annual gathering of thousands of Unitarian Universalists, may be about to undergo some dramatic changes.

Those changes could include holding GA every other year instead of annually, reducing the number of authorized delegates from around 5,000 to 2,000, and subsidizing delegates.

These changes are some of the proposals included in the final report of the Fifth Principle Task Force, commissioned by the Unitarian Universalist Association Board of Trustees in October 2007. The task force is named for the UUA’s Fifth Principle, which affirms “the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.”

The 13-page report says that GA is “dramatically broken” in four ways: “GA is not really democratic,” the report says, because “delegates are neither representative of their congregations . . ., nor are they accountable to them.” GA is “economically discriminatory” and generationally discriminatory” because almost all delegates pay their own way. The cost of GA is a “heavy burden” to the UUA. Finally, the report says, “the GA process is not in alignment with the board’s recent adoption of Policy Governance.”

The task force report says, “The future of our UU movement can ill-afford to continue the ways of faux democracy and unaccountable representation that have characterized Associational governance, including the content and process of General Assembly. The Task Force believes that the status quo for General Assembly is not an option.”

The Board of Trustees will meet January 13–17 in San Antonio, Tex., and will discuss the task force report then. UUA Moderator Gini Courter said it is too early to say whether any of its recommendations will be on the GA agenda this June. Several key recommendations would require bylaw changes to take effect.


From annual to biennial assemblies

General Assembly, held in late June, is currently a five-day convention with hundreds of workshops, worship services, musical events, daily business sessions called plenaries, and an exhibit hall with booths sponsored by vendors, congregations, and independent organizations. Held in a different city each year, GA provides an opportunity for UUs to worship together, learn about many practical aspects of congregational life, and to network with other UUs.

Delegates are asked to attend GA’s business plenaries, where they can vote and speak to motions. Others who attend GA are free to spend their time however they wish. In recent years, GA has attracted 3,000 to 5,000 people, approximately half of whom are delegates.

The task force is offering two scenarios for a reformed General Assembly. In the first scenario, a much smaller delegate assembly focused on governance and congregational leaders would be held every other year over two and a half days in August. In the second, a two-day conference with programming similar to GA’s current mix would precede or follow the weekend delegate assembly.

The chair of the Fifth Principle Task Force is Joe Sullivan, a past president of the UUA’s Southwestern Conference and a member of the Henry David Thoreau Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Fort Bend County in Stafford, Tex.

Sullivan said the task force interviewed leaders of four other denominations and found that all held biennial or triennial assemblies and that three had ended the practice of annual assemblies in the past decade. “There is no question that this is a big change,” he said. “Every denominational leader we talked with told us how big a change this was for them. They also said, to a person, that they would not go back to annual meetings. Now that they’ve done it, they say it’s been a very positive thing for them.”

He said the United Church of Christ, which has about 1.1 million members in 5,300 congregations, has 1,000 delegates at its biennial meeting. The UUA, although it has only about 164,000 members, could not go that low, Sullivan said. He said the task force felt there ought to be at least one delegate per congregation. “And we felt larger congregations should have more than one, so we ended up with almost 2,000.” It is unlikely, he noted, that all would attend any given GA.

Sullivan added, “The feedback from UUs has been largely favorable for moving to a biannual meeting. Those who have the greatest concerns about it are young people. Two years can be a long time to a youth or young adult. There is also a fear we’ll lose a sense of energy that we get with our annual meetings.”

Sullivan said the task force was primarily focused on envisioning a more democratic “delegate assembly” and did not try to work out what non-business parts of a revamped GA might look like. The task force report does raise the possibility of holding some other type of national “program assembly” on the alternate years or even one occurring either immediately before or after a GA delegate assembly. A program assembly would provide a venue for the many workshops GA attendees are accustomed to, and an exhibit hall. Another possibility would be to hold regional meetings on the alternate years.

Sullivan added, “The details of however GA ends up will be worked out by others. For instance, will there be keynote speakers? What is most important at the moment is that we do governance better through GA and make it accessible and fair.”

Less frequency does not mean less democracy, said Courter. “We can do so much better than we are doing. This creates an opportunity to actually say what we mean about the democratic process and who needs to be there. We need to have discernment about the GA we are supposed to have and the event we have turned it into.”

She said she has encouraged the board to act on the report in January, “so congregations can talk before the next GA about what it would mean for our congregations to follow these recommendations.”


Fewer delegates and democratic accountability

Most UUs first learned about possible changes to GA when Denise Davidoff, then-chair of the task force, talked about some of the possible changes at a workshop and at a plenary session at the 2009 General Assembly in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Davidoff, who presided over eight General Assemblies as UUA moderator from 1993 to 2001, asked delegates and observers at a plenary session to raise their hands if their congregations provided financial assistance for sending leaders to GA. When few hands went up, she declared, “We should get serious about governing ourselves democratically, or I will move in 2010 that we rescind the Fifth Principle until we can prove we are democratically represented.”

In an interview in December, Davidoff added, “Congregations come to GA without any particular kind of democratic process involving their representatives, and delegates play a largely passive role. They are asked to listen to countless reports and there is very little business that actually involves their lives in congregations. The task force is charged with finding a way to govern that meets our commitment to the democratic process and returns responsibility for governance to the congregations.”

Sullivan said, “GA has evolved in ways that are contrary to excellence in government. The question now is how can we make it better? GA is first and foremost to serve the governance of the Association. The delegates are there to conduct that business.”

Sullivan said the task force came to its conclusions after holding discussions with many UU groups, including attending six district assemblies and listening to hundreds of UUs.

The task force is recommending that GA be limited to about 2,000 delegates. Under the present system about 5,000 are eligible to be delegates, although generally only 1,500 to 3,000 attend. (The task force report estimates that less than 60 percent of the UUA’s congregations send delegates to GA.) The proposal would allow each congregation to name one settled minister as a delegate. Congregations with fewer than 250 members could also name one other delegate, while congregations with 251 to 550 members could add a third delegate, those with 551 to 1,000 members could add a fourth, and larger congregations could add a fifth.

In addition to congregational delegates, the task force recommends selecting 20 at-large delegates from each of five geographic regions. It also recommends eliminating the delegate status currently given to ministers emeriti and emeritae, UUA trustees, and representatives of the three UUA Associate organizations––the UU Service Committee, the UU United Nations Office, and the UU Women’s Federation. Some religious educators, who currently have delegate status as Credentialed Religious Educators–Masters Level, would also lose their delegate status. Under the task force’s scenarios, which Sullivan emphasized are only suggestions, most delegates would be subsidized to some degree for attending GA, with a larger subsidy most likely being paid to delegates from congregations that make their annual Fair Share contribution to the UUA. “Subsidizing delegates responds to the issue of economic accessibility,” said Sullivan, “and helps make GA multigenerational and responsive to antiracist, antioppressive, and multicultural issues.”


Subsidies for delegates

General Assembly costs about $1.1 million annually, including the budget for the planning staff. Jan Sneegas, director of the UUA’s General Assembly and Conference Planning office, said GA has always been organized to break even each year. In the past 10 years it has had deficits in only two years (2005 in Fort Worth, Tex., and 2008 in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.).

Shifting from an annual assembly to a biennial one could actually cost the UUA significantly more money if delegates received subsidies. The cost of a fully subsidized delegate assembly would be $2.32 million, the task force estimates. If that cost was offset by 3,000 nondelegates who registered for a program assembly (revenue of $1,050,000), the UUA would still need to come up with $1.27 million more.

Under the task force’s proposals, GA would no longer be set up to break even. The proposed changes are focused instead on increasing GA’s economic accessibility, Sneegas said. “The task force is proposing a way to improve governance through increasing economic accessibility by subsidizing attendance of delegates,” she said. The costs would, however, be spread across two years.

The UUA paid part of the cost for congregational presidents to attend GA from 2004 to 2008, but does not pay a subsidy now.


Provoking a conversation about GA’s purpose

Congregations have a role between now and the next GA, June 23–27 in Minneapolis, in determining what changes are made, Sullivan said. “The task force hopes this report stirs serious conversation about how we truly live our polity. What constitutes the business of the Association and how do we participate in it and take it up effectively and sustainably? Do we value our democracy or just give it lip service?”

Sullivan added, “A real delegate assembly would engage the delegates in meaningful business. It would involve them in assessing progress and performance, and accountability. They would engage in conversation on opportunities and obstacles. It would involve a real linking of delegates to one another, to their geographic neighbors, and to the board of trustees and the administration. And the delegates would be accountable because they were elected by their congregations. They would be engaged in more than just what happens on the several days of GA.”

The proposed changes also envision that in the periods between GAs delegates would work closely with delegates from nearby congregations and with the UUA trustee from their region on Association business. They would use a full range of electronic tools to stay connected, including a website, webinars, and conference calls. Another proposal is that delegates be seated in plenary sessions with other delegates from their region.

Davidoff said the task force heard from some people concerned about losing their annual GA. “They were largely responding to the programming part of GA, the workshops, the friendship, the worship,” she said. “We didn’t hear from people saying they’d be upset if they didn’t get to go to plenaries every year.”

Would delegates vote for biennial GAs if that proposal were presented to them? No one knows, said Davidoff. “I do know that if we are not going to take the role of congregations and the governance of our own association of congregations very seriously then we will likely adversely impact the future health of the Association.”

Davidoff added: “This is not an intellectual exercise. The relationship between congregations and their governance responsibilities is broken. Repairing it is a very important part of figuring out how we are going to survive as an association.”

Writing on Election-L, a UUA-sponsored email list for discussion of governance issues, the Rev. Thomas Schade, a minister of First Unitarian Church of Worchester, Mass., said the plan seemed sensible to him. “A more representative GA will be able to provide more substantive guidance to the board, who will then be able to hold the staff accountable to the goals of the Association.”

Another respondent on Election-L, Stephen Schwichow, a member of the board of trustees of the First UU Society of San Francisco, said recently in an email interview that he would favor holding a General Assembly one year and district assemblies the next to save money for both the districts and the UUA. “Even a well put together district assembly can help folks realize that they are part of a greater movement and can be tremendously encouraging and successful in terms of networking and idea sharing.”

Another writer on Election-L, Stephen Caldwell from All Souls UU Church in Shreveport, La., said he believed congregations already have the ability to fix many of the problems with GA without UUA bylaw changes. “Many of these issues are ones that congregations can fix today locally if they deem these issues to be important.”

“If congregational leaders really want GA delegates to be representative of their congregation and their delegate travel to be less economically discriminatory,” Caldwell wrote, “all these leaders need to do is become more involved in the selection and funding of GA delegates at the local congregational level. If congregations are selecting GA delegates that are not accountable to them and are not representative of them, that is their responsibility and their decision.”


Change takes time

Courter said the discussion about GA had its genesis eight years ago when the board formed a task force to research making GA more economically accessible. She said the task force decided it couldn’t do anything about economic accessibility unless the structure of GA was changed.

She noted that almost any change to GA would require a two-year vote. “That means delegates would need to come both years knowing how their congregations feels about the issue, not simply voting their ‘best guess.’” She added, “I hope congregations take this up and rather than people having discussions about what their individual GA experience would be, I hope the discussions are about what’s best for our congregations.”

Any changes to GA would take several years to implement. The UUA has commitments with convention centers to hold annual General Assemblies at least through 2013. After Minneapolis, GA will be held in Charlotte, N.C.; Phoenix, Ariz.; and Louisville, Ky. The board has an agreement in front of it to hold GA in Providence, R.I., in 2014, but has not yet signed it, said Sneegas.


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