The Unitarian Universalist Association’s Board of Trustees voted at its January meeting to approve the sale of three of the UUA’s four Beacon Hill properties in Boston. The board also agreed to gather in Selma, Ala., in March 2015 in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of the 1965 voting rights march there. And trustees voted to offer a $100 registration subsidy this year to congregational presidents and chairs of governing boards who come to General Assembly as delegates.
The board met in executive session on Saturday, January 25, to approve a purchase and sale agreement for the UUA’s headquarters building at 25 Beacon Street and the two townhouses that have served as Eliot and Pickett Houses, a bed-and-breakfast operation for UU volunteers and staff at 6–7 Mt. Vernon Place. Details of the sale will be made public when it closes on March 20, according to Tim Brennan, treasurer and chief financial officer.
The UUA is seeking a buyer for its fourth property, 41 Mt. Vernon Street, which houses Beacon Press and the UUA’s program staff. Interior renovations are underway at its new headquarters in Boston’s Seaport District, and the Rev. Harlan Limpert, chief operating officer, told the board that staff are planning to move into their new space in early May. Eliot and Pickett Houses will continue to operate until June, after which volunteers can stay at the Club Quarters Hotel.
The board held its winter quarterly meeting in San Diego January 23–26, 2014, continuing a tradition of meeting outside of Boston each January. Trustees expressed excitement about adjusting their meeting schedule to travel to Selma in March 2015 to commemorate the civil rights struggle there. The UUA board had gone to Selma in 1965 to join other Unitarian Universalists in support of the civil rights movement and to grieve the murder of the Rev. James Reeb, one of many UU ministers who had come to Selma to join the march over the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
The board typically meets in late January and then in mid-April, in Boston. The trustees did not make definitive plans about the dates of their Selma trip or about the exact business they would conduct there; the board routinely handles the UUA budget and financial reports at its April meeting.
(The board’s written report about the January meeting describes key decisions and topics of conversation, and observes: “The fruits of a smaller board continue to be realized in more generative, collaborative conversation between board members and also with the UUA’s administrative staff.”)
General Assembly incentives
The board voted to subsidize the General Assembly registration of congregational presidents or board chairs who come to GA as delegates this summer. The $100 subsidies will come from the $100,000 the board appropriated last year to pay for a governance consultant. The board agreed to spend up to $50,000 of that fund to help bring the lay leaders of congregations to GA, which will be held in Providence, R.I., June 25–29. Registration opens March 3.
The vote grew out of an ongoing board conversation about transforming GA and the governance of the association. (See our coverage of the January 2013 and October 2013 board meetings.) An hour-long discussion revealed that trustees were divided about potentially controversial proposals drafted by a working group—“no automatic delegate status for ministers” generated the most conversation—so the board backed up and agreed to focus first on improving the preparation and accountability of congregational delegates.
The board’s goal is to invite this year’s General Assembly to imagine a transformed GA—one more deeply involved in envisioning the future of Unitarian Universalism. Bylaw changes related to GA might come as early as 2015. For now, however, the trustees are still feeling their way toward proposals they might ask delegates to entertain. “We have not agreed about reducing the number of delegates,” Donna Harrison, the chair of the Transforming General Assembly working group, told her fellow trustees near the end of their conversation. “We have agreed that we are interested in different ways of selecting delegates. We have not agreed that we want to go to biennial GAs; all that we have maybe agreed is that it’s an option we want to consider.”
The GA subsidy for congregational presidents and board chairs reflects the board’s interest in encouraging congregations to send delegates who are accountable to the congregations they represent. Trustee Susan Weaver told the board that the Linkage working group will offer webinars this spring to orient delegates to the conversation and business they’ll consider at GA.
More information about the $100 subsidies is available from the General Assembly website.
Last year’s General Assembly passed a responsive resolution, “Deepen Our Commitment to an Anti-Oppressive, Multicultural Unitarian Universalist Association,” which urged the administration, board, and Journey Toward Wholeness Transformation Committee to recommit the UUA to antiracism, antioppression, and multiculturalism. Taquiena Boston, director of Multicultural Growth and Witness, presented a draft report from the UUA staff answering the resolution’s call to the administration.
The UUA has moved from a “program-centered orientation” to an “ethos-centered orientation,” Boston told the board. In its draft written report, the administration explained: “Since the 1997 Journey Toward Wholeness Business Resolution, the UUA’s antioppression/multicultural and intergenerational work has evolved from a program-centered orientation to an ethos that infuses every staff group.”
The Rev. Sarah Stewart, trustee, observed that the responsive resolution had called on the UUA to “deepen” its commitments. “What I see in the report is the work already being done,” she said. “But I don’t think it will address this desire for the connections and resources to be deepened.”
The trustees will be crafting their response to the resolution’s directions to the board at their April meeting. The administration will revise its report before the General Assembly.
President’s report: Movement or association?
President Peter Morales presented a written report focused on the administration’s “core convictions that underlie all our interpretations, our views on our strategic situation and the role the UUA staff can play, our belief in what strategies will move us forward, and a very brief summary of major initiatives.” The UUA staff “must lead change” and “cast a vision,” the report said. It “must nurture a culture of collaboration, . . . be a powerful public voice for our shared values, . . . [and] do what individual congregations cannot."
Stewart asked Morales, “What might we see you do in your presidency to cast that vision so we as leaders can help share that vision? What is the vision of Unitarian Universalism that the UUA must cast? Or what process are you going to undertake to articulate it?”
Morales responded, “The vision that is emerging, that I’m trying to reflect, has not changed radically at all. It’s a vision around compassion, community, and acting in the world. What is shifting in that vision is a sense that, given our current context, [we must move] beyond how we’ve thought about congregations to engage people who are deeply suspicious about church and about congregations as an institution.”
“Though I agree with your stance that a changing culture requires new ways of bringing efforts to bear,” replied the Rev. Rob Eller-Isaacs, trustee, “I worry that undue emphasis on change in culture may be a dodge for the fact that many of our churches are inadequate churches. I’d hate to see us avoid the work of strengthening the church.”
Morales responded, “We have to do two critical things simultaneously: make our congregations better, and also look for other ways of doing it.”
The Rev. Dr. Terasa Cooley, the UUA’s officer for Program and Strategy, described the shift in the administration’s thinking about the core purpose of the association. “Congregations are the throughput, not the end. They’re the means for the transformation we’re seeking. If all you do is focus on the congregations, it becomes idolatry. That’s a big philosophical change.”
Thinking of the UUA less as an "association of congregations" and more as a religious movement focused on cultural transformation may require a denomination-wide conversation about our polity, several trustees observed. Earlier in the weekend, Cooley put it bluntly: “It’s time for another polity convention.”
At last October’s meeting, the board suspended the portion of its schedule of monitoring reports that requires the administration to present its Global Ends Monitoring Report at the January meeting. The board and administration are working with a governance consultant, Eric Craymer, to improve the way the administration develops its interpretations of the Global Ends and the metrics it uses to measure compliance.
Craymer told the trustees that “the board should be involved in the conversation” that generates the administration’s interpretations of the Global Ends—“not so much to dictate but to enrich management’s thinking on the topic.”
In April, the administration will present a full set of interpretations of the Ends, along with metrics for at least a few of them. The board will then discuss the approach the administration is taking to help refine it.
Limpert asked the board to consider postponing at least some of the other monitoring reports due between now and April to allow the administration to focus on the move from Beacon Hill to its new headquarters. The executive committee of the board will review the scheduled reports with the administration and decide which ones may be postponed.
Other business and local visits
The board also approved a simplified policy governing Beacon Press’s finances; clarified that the board’s examination of misconduct and boundary violations would not be confined to clergy misconduct but would apply to misconduct by all religious professionals; voted to approve a significantly streamlined set of policies governing the board itself; and discussed the Annual Program Fund and levels of congregational giving to the UUA.
Trustees spent Saturday afternoon visiting the South Bay campus of First Unitarian Universalist Church of San Diego, in Chula Vista, a city of 244,000 people near the border with Mexico. Members of the multicultural congregation, which holds services in English and Spanish, told trustees that the congregation’s storefront location—between a tattoo parlor and a beauty salon—made it easier to find and more accessible than the San Diego’s church’s landscaped hilltop campus.
Both campuses are served by the ministers and staff of the San Diego church, and governed by a single board. Congregants in Chula Vista said the arrangement allows them to focus on outreach in their community rather than worrying about financing and governing the new congregation.
The trustees then had dinner with leaders from five San Diego-area congregations at the San Diego campus.
Before the board meeting began, several trustees and staff crossed the border into Tijuana to see the work of Casas de Luz, a nonprofit social justice project of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of San Dieguito, which builds houses with people in Tijuana using materials discarded in the United States.
In Tijuana, the trustees also encountered deportees from the U.S., including recently deported people near a Roman Catholic soup kitchen and veterans of the U.S. Armed Forces who had been deported after being convicted of felonies. Brennan, the UUA treasurer, joined the trip and said it was especially upsetting to see how Friendship Park—where families on both sides of the border used to be able to meet—has been made virtually inaccessible. “I was struck by the mean-spiritedness of what we [the U.S.] do,” he said.
Photograph (above): Youth observer Rosemary Dodd (center) speaks during the January 2013 Board of Trustees meeting as trustees Lew Phinney (left) and the Rev. Rob Eller-Isaacs listen (Dea Brayden).