Board considers impact of biennial General Assemblies

Board considers impact of biennial General Assemblies

President tells UUA trustees that monitoring reports are of 'little value'; young adults and people of color express concerns about biennial GA.

A group of young adults spoke with the UUA Board of Trustees about the potential impact of proposed changes to General Assembly

A group of young adults spoke with the UUA Board of Trustees about the potential impact of proposed changes to General Assembly on the young adult community. From left are Julie Brock, Kevin Leininger, Jeremy Ritzmann, and Elizabeth Mount. In the background is Carey McDonald, the UUA’s Youth and Young Adult Ministries director.

Dea Brayden/UUA


The Unitarian Universalist Association’s administration and Board of Trustees continue to struggle to find common ground about the content of the administration’s “monitoring reports” to the board. In a memo to the board prior to its quarterly meeting in Philadelphia, Pa., January 17–20, UUA President Peter Morales called the reports “demeaning” and “of little value,” sparking several hours of conversation at the board meeting about the value and content of the reports, as well as the relationship between the administration and the staff.

The board also engaged representatives from a variety of UU constituency groups in conversation about the consequences of a proposal to move to biennial General Assemblies, which people of color and young adults said could further marginalize their communities. And trustees discussed the representation of youth on the board, a conversation prompted during the meeting when 17-year-old youth observer Katherine Allen was named to complete the term of at-large trustee Charlie King.

The board also approved several proposals for consideration by delegates at the June 2013 General Assembly in Louisville, Ky.; voted to provide congregational leaders with quarterly reports about the board’s activities; and continued revising UUA policies and the “Global Ends” of the association.

Biennial General Assemblies?

In August 2012, the board appointed an ad hoc committee of trustees to review the work of the Fifth Principle Task Force and to make recommendations based on its 2009 report (PDF). That report had concluded that General Assembly was not “really democratic” and that delegates to it were “neither representative of their congregations . . . nor . . . accountable to them.” It also found GA to be economically discriminatory.

The Fifth Principle Task Force had recommended that GA become a biennial event, held in odd years, with a smaller but subsidized delegate body. Action on the report was deferred, in part because of the board’s focus on the 2012 Justice General Assembly in Phoenix. The ad hoc committee was charged with reopening the conversation. The board sought comment from groups such as the GA Planning Committee, the UU Ministers Association, DRUUMM (Diverse & Revolutionary UU Multicultural Ministries), and C*UUYAN (the Continental UU Young Adult Network) about how changes to GA could affect two areas it called “how we gather” and “how we govern.” Representatives from each of those groups attended the Philadelphia meeting, sharing a desire for regular, meaningful national gatherings during a two-hour, sometimes tearful conversation.

Julie Brock, facilitator of C*UUYAN and a student at Starr King School for the Ministry, said the biggest thing the board could do for young adults was to “recognize and validate this culture . . . largely made up of young adults who have grown up in this faith.”

“We’re not necessarily always active in the sanctuary,” Brock said, “but we are very involved in the faith. We’ve created this radical culture that is wildly progressive and liturgically non-Protestant.” It’s a culture, Brock said, that has not found a voice within governance and has not found a way to connect to congregations.

Jacqui Williams, a member of the First UU Society of Albany, N.Y., co-president of DRUUMM, and a member of the GA Planning Committee, said that she first went to GA looking for people of color and for UU ministers who were women. “I didn’t know anything about the business,” she said. “GA is a place where we can be seen and heard and valued and scream, ‘Oh, there is somebody else like me.’ . . . It’s where we find out we are not alone.”

The Rev. Linda Olson Peebles attended as president-designate of the UU Ministers Association. Olson Peebles, minister of religious education at the UU Church of Arlington, Va., and a former member of the UUA board, said the UUA has outgrown the governance model of GA, which is based on a New England town meeting. “That just doesn’t work in a convention hall,” she said. She noted that many ministers, who arrive prior to GA to attend the UUMA’s Ministry Days professional conference, leave before significant parts of plenary business take place.

“A lot of ministers would prefer if there was a lot less voting,” Olson Peebles said. “Maybe even an every-other-year governing GA”—which would leave more time for “learning together, sharing stories together, and being inspired together.”

Olson Peebles also said she hoped GA could find a way to cater to a multigenerational community. “Parents of young children are a disenfranchised group from our community,” she said. She believes GA could learn from UU camps and conference centers, which have figured out how to weave families into their activities. “If they are not woven in and invited into leadership, then we have lost them,” she said.

The Rev. Dr. Walt Wieder, chair of the GA Planning Committee, cautioned against moving too quickly on changes to GA. The board has made significant governance changes to board size and representation, which will go into effect in June. “If we make too many changes in terms of governing now, it will be hard to see what’s making a difference,” he said.

Kathy Burek, president of the District Presidents Association, said that changing to a biennial GA would necessitate bylaw changes. Amendments that require votes at two GAs, for example, would require a four-year rather than the current two-year process. She also said, “It’s hard to separate gathering and governance. We’re governance junkies, and the gathering is really vital.”

C*UUYAN’s Elizabeth Mount and DRUUMM’s Karen Lin both cautioned that another proposal from the Fifth Principle Task Force—to shrink the total number of eligible delegates from approximately 5,000 to 2,000—could have the unintended consequence of reducing the likelihood that people from historically marginalized groups would be chosen as delegates from their congregations.

The affordability of GA was also called into question, and speakers praised efforts at the 2012 Justice GA in Phoenix to provide more scholarships.

The discussion became emotional at times. Through tears, Mount said, “I hear from young adults who can’t get delegate status, and they still sit in plenary.” She said, “It kills me” to know congregational ministers who get automatic delegate status choose not to attend those same plenary sessions.

Katherine Allen, the board’s youth observer, was also moved to tears. “I’m angry right now. We’re talking about representation, but I’m the only youth at the table. There’s not a word about [the General Assembly] Youth Caucus. I feel like we’re talking about inclusion but forgetting about large parts.”

Concluding the conversation, trustee Joan Lund, who chairs an ad hoc group to follow up on the recommendations of the Fifth Principle Task Force, thanked all the guests for their attendance and their comments. “You have provided us with much information to carry forth, and we hope we don’t disappoint you,” she said.

Youth involvement

Halfway through the meeting, the trustees went into executive session to name someone to complete the term of at-large trustee Charlie King, who resigned in December. At 78 and with health challenges, King wrote that he needed to choose carefully where he directed his energy and would be devoting his time to ongoing volunteer projects closer to his Brooklyn home.

The board chose Katherine Allen, youth observer to the board since June 2012, to serve out the last six months of King’s term. The 17-year-old Allen, a member of Unity Church-Unitarian in St. Paul, Minn., and a high school senior, is the youngest person to serve as a voting member of the board. (In executive session, the board also named trustee Donna Harrison the UUA’s first vice moderator and named trustee the Rev. Dr. Susan Ritchie the UUA’s secretary effective in June, when they will succeed Jackie Shanti and Tom Loughrey, respectively.)

With Allen becoming a trustee, an immediate vacancy opened up in the youth observer position. The Rev. Sarah Stewart, trustee from the Northern New England District, said that it might be time to rethink the youth observer position. “When we made the move to a smaller board, we recognized that all trustees were accountable to all constituencies,” she said.

Moderator Gini Courter noted that the current board includes both an at-large youth trustee (elected by the General Assembly) and a youth observer (elected by congregational youth groups) so that no single youth must be the only one at the board table. Although the current board includes a number of young adults, including 21-year-old youth trustee-at-large Caleb Raible-Clark, Allen is the only youth. The UUA defines “young adults” as people ages 18 to 35; “youth” are high school-aged.

Several board members endorsed a proposal to have two youth observers with staggered, overlapping two-year terms. Trustees discussed the pros and cons of the arrangement, including the difficulty of asking a sophomore in high school to commit to a two-year, national position that requires significant long-term planning. Others discussed the difficulty of identifying youth qualified for the positions.

“I have watched the board struggle with what happens when a national youth agency goes away,” said Courter, referring to the dissolution of YRUU in 2008.

Allen advocated for having two youth observers. “It’s good practice to have a second youth observer,” she said. “And it gives two perspectives and takes the weight off that one person to come up with all the ideas surrounding youth.”

The board will resume the conversation about the future of the youth observer position at its April meeting in Boston. In the interim, the board asked the UUA staff to submit to the board names of candidates who could complete Allen’s term as youth observer.

It also voted to adopt a Youth Safety Policy, requiring that the board and its committees adhere to the association’s youth safety and protection policies.

Monitoring reports

A familiar tension around monitoring reports hung over the Philadelphia meeting.

The board’s system of Policy Governance requires the administration to submit regular written reports about how it is carrying out UUA Policy in adherence to the “Ends” or goals of the association. The administration submitted a "Global Ends Monitoring Report" and five other monitoring reports for review by the board at its January meeting.

The board accepted monitoring reports about Policies 2.1 (Treatment of People), 2.3 (Treatment of Staff), and 2.8 (Financial Conditions and Activities), but said the administration's "operational definitions" in its report about Policy 2.13 (Election Practices) failed to establish an objective standard for compliance. The board largely accepted revised operational definitions for Policy 2.14 (Support to the Board), but asked the administration to provide rationales for each of its definitions. The board also amended several sections of that policy.

Of the 22 policies in the UUA's "Global Ends," the administration said the UUA was "non-compliant" on 12. In reviewing the report, the board's Governance Working Group raised concerns about the operational definitions in some cases. In others, trustees said the report did not demonstrate how the administration's priorities were derived from the Ends or describe the administration's underlying strategy. "We're looking for the administration's strategy of how we will improve performance," said Donna Harrison, chair of the Governance Working Group.

The board ultimately voted to ask the administration for remediation reports for the Global Ends policies that are out of compliance. The vote followed several rounds of discussion about the tensions between the board and the administration.

Prior to the meeting, UUA President Peter Morales submitted a memo to the board about the monitoring process, which he characterized as “difficult and sometimes divisive.” Morales wrote that the staff has spent as much as $100,000 in monitoring over the past three years, but has found that producing the reports has “little value” and that “doing the reports [is] a waste of time, frustrating, demeaning, and a distraction from their other work.” Further, Morales wrote that “producing the reports does not appear to shape decisions of the board.” He asked for a conversation with the board about the monitoring reports, including a suspension of nonessential reports as the board rewrites the “ends.”

In the memo, Morales also contended that many board members did not take the time either to read the reports or to complete the board surveys about them. Harrison and trustee Lew Phinney found that for the latest batch of monitoring reports, five trustees did not complete any of the assessments.

Trustee Sarah Stewart led a 90-minute conversation Saturday afternoon, January 19, about the memo, asking Morales pointed questions prefaced with phrases such as, “Do you agree that it is proper for the board to articulate those ends?” (“Yes.”) and “How can the achievement of those ends be demonstrated?”

Morales responded by saying that their very conversation was an example of what’s wrong. “This is like a deposition,” he said.

Other board members joined the conversation. Trustee Caleb Raible-Clark said that he has seen the quality of the monitoring reports consistently improve.

Courter responded to Morales’s claim that he was often not given sufficient or any time on the board’s agenda to present association initiatives. (At the January meeting, there was no time on the agenda specifically allotted to a “President’s Report.” At the October 2012 meeting, five minutes were allotted, under the heading, “President’s Report—Questions for Peter.”) “I’m bothered by your perception that you’re not on the agenda,” Courter said. “Reports about the activities of the staff have to find their way into the ends report. . . . I think we do share values and a desire for outcomes. But I believe we do not share confidence that there is an ability on your part to articulate the strategic operational direction and tie that back to the budget. The job of making sure we do that is not ours. It’s yours.”

Secretary Tom Loughrey said he was surprised by Morales’s memo and its timing. He said he would have hoped that if monitoring certain policies was a waste of time, the staff would have noted that in a specific report. “If you think you’re doing something that is a waste of time, please, please tell us,” he said. “If it’s a bad policy—I can’t believe all our policies are bad—and it’s a waste of time, I want to know about it earlier on and in the context of the report.”

Natalia Averett, trustee from the Joseph Priestley District, reiterated a point she has articulated at several board meetings. “I asked in my first board meeting about the money, and what you’re doing with the money, and I didn’t get an answer besides ‘I’m doing all these programs.’ In New Orleans, I asked the same question. I saw 192 names of people who get paychecks. The budget is $23 million. I wanted to know what you were aiming for and what you were doing to fulfill that aim beside programs, because programs change over time. . . . Can you outline your [strategy] in a way that can be written down for us and married to the budget?”

Joan Lund was blunt. “When staff find this a waste of time, I have several reactions,” she said. “I don’t mean to be disrespectful, but I want to say, ‘Okay. So what? This is something that has to be done.’”

Board members and members of the administration discussed the idea of more collaboration during the process of writing the reports. No conclusions were reached. UUA Executive Vice President Kay Montgomery called the conversation “deeply satisfactory.” Stewart said that she and a small group of trustees working on this matter would “try to keep us focused on this issue of monitoring and accountability, and working fruitfully together.”

Moderator candidates react

The 2013 General Assembly will elect Moderator Gini Courter’s successor. Both candidates for that position were present for the discussions about the monitoring reports and spoke after the meeting with UU World.

Jim Key, moderator candidate from Beaufort, S.C., said the meeting was “possibly a breakthrough moment” in the relationship between the administration and the board. He was heartened to hear them discuss the possibility of collaboration. “I embrace the notion of collaborative governance,” he said. “Monitoring is an important piece of governance, but it should be in collaboration.”

Key said there should be more collaboration outside of the boardroom between the moderator and the president to create an “effective governance frame.” For example, he said, if he were moderator, he could not imagine creating an agenda for a board meeting without consulting the president. “There should be tension, but there should also be more collaboration,” he said. The elected officers—the moderator, the president, and the financial advisor—should all be in right relationship with one another and model that for congregations, Key said. In June, a new moderator, new financial advisor, and five new trustees will join the board, and Key sees that as a further opportunity to advance the working relationships on the board.

Tamara Payne-Alex, moderator candidate from San Jose, Calif., said she was not surprised by the conversation, and that she knew there were “stuck places,” but she believes that relationships are getting better. “The things I see where people are struggling are areas where I’m confident I can move the process forward,” she said. “I enjoy observing places where folks are stuck and say, ‘How can we do something radically different in this conversation and have a different outcome?,’” she said. “The love for our association and faith are there on both sides. So the sense that this can be moved is very obvious to me because of our shared values.”

Payne-Alex said that the administration has been well-loved. And they “have not been in a position where there has been an external set of standards” like those of Policy Governance. She said there is a skill set needed to take what they have been doing and reimagine it in a different language.

Bylaw amendments

The board voted to place several bylaw amendments on the agenda for delegates to the 2013 General Assembly in Louisville.

  • One amendment would revise language in Article II regarding “non-discrimination,” changing it to “inclusion.”

  • Another amendment (PDF) would create the MidAmerica Region of the association in place of three current UUA districts. This bylaw amendment is contingent upon each of the districts in the region—Prairie Star, Central Midwest, and Heartland—voting at their annual meetings this spring to create one regional board and administrative structure. If the districts vote for a merger, then in July 2013 the three districts will pass out of existence and become the MidAmerica Region.

  • A bylaw amendment regarding election practices would allow off-site General Assembly delegates to cast electronic ballots in denominational elections.

  • An additional bylaw amendment brought by the Southeast District will also appear on the agenda. (Districts have standing to submit bylaw amendments for consideration of the GA.) If approved, the amendment would change language in UUA bylaw C-3.1 to say that the UUA is a voluntary association of “free, self-governing local churches and fellowships . . . which have mutually chosen to pursue common goals together.” The board approved placing the amendment on the agenda without noting that the proposal reintroduces language about “local churches and fellowships” that the 2012 General Assembly removed.

In other business, the board voted:

  • To authorize the board’s Communications Working Group to write a brief letter to UU ministers and congregational presidents following each quarterly meeting to apprise them of important decisions and discussions (update 2.4.13: here is the letter about the January meeting [PDF]; and

  • To revise sections of the UUA Governance Manual.

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Correction 1.28.13: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this story misstated the location of the 2013 General Assembly, which will be in Louisville, Ky.

Clarification 1.28.13: An earlier version of this story included truncated quotes from Julie Brock.

Clarification 1.31.13: C*UUYAN’s Elizabeth Mount and DRUUMM's Karen Lin raised concerns about the representation of young adults and people of color among General Assembly delegates not in response to the Fifth Principle Task Force proposal to shift to biennial assemblies (as an earlier version of this story reported) but in response to another proposal to shrink the delegate pool.

Correction and clarification 2.4.13: An earlier version of this story misstated the number of individual policies or subpolicies evaluated in the UUA Administration’s "Global Ends Monitoring Report," based on information supplied at the board meeting. The story also inaccurately attributed “non-compliance” evaluations to the board. This paragraph and the next three have been updated to clarify the distinction between policies about which the administration reports compliance and policies for which the board requires changes or revised reports.