Takes up Fifth Principle Task Force report; 2013 General Assembly will see more plenary time and focus on covenants.
The 2012 Justice General Assembly was a unique event for the Unitarian Universalist Association, with its focus on immigration justice and its large-scale public witness events. But any return to a GA status quo could be short-lived: big changes may be in store for the annual meeting of Unitarian Universalists.
At its October 2012 meeting in Boston, the Board of Trustees of the Unitarian Universalist Association reflected on this past year’s GA, began shaping the 2013 General Assembly in Louisville, Ky., and discussed bringing systemic changes to the Assembly in the future. (See related story for a full report on the October board meeting.)
In August, 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 recommended that GA become a biennial event, held in odd years. 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.
That committee, chaired by trustee Joan Lund of the Florida District, recommended that the board accept the “fundamental objectives” of the Fifth Principle Task Force to make GA “more democratic, delegates more accountable, make the assembly less expensive, less economically discriminatory, less generationally discriminatory, and more active in policy formation.” The committee further recommended the number of delegates be reduced to approximately 2,000.
In the lengthy discussion that followed, trustees did not craft a plan to bring the recommendations of the Fifth Principle Task Force before delegates. They will continue to discuss the issue to address the many concerns trustees raised about the report.
Diversity of delegates was of great concern. The Rev. Dr. Susan Ritchie, trustee from the Ohio Meadville District, asked how they could shrink the number of delegates without harming the diversity of representation. “Is there a way to shrink the franchise and increase diversity of representation?” she asked.
The Rev. Clyde Grubbs, trustee-at-large, also expressed concern for the diversity of delegates. “There are concerns that if a congregation’s delegation was reduced to one or two people, that the people of color would not be the first chosen to represent it,” he said. Grubbs added that there are many who come to GA—including parish and community ministers, religious education professionals, and people of color—who want to meet with their constituency groups. “We should go forward looking at the Fifth Principle Task Force and discuss . . . how we can have a GA that is both democratic and doesn’t create barriers,” he said.
Linda Laskowski, trustee from the Pacific Central District, noted that programming and governance are intertwined at GA. In her district, she said, people are not mourning “the loss of plenary sessions,” but rather the opportunities at GA to learn and be together with other UUs.
Ritchie said that proposals to move to a biennial GA were voted down by delegates in 1969 and 1971. Part of the reason for those failures, she said, was that no provision was made for making up for the programming that would be lost.
David Jackoway, Heartland District trustee, raised several concerns, although he said he agreed with the fundamental objective of the report. Since it was written, however, he noted that several trends have emerged, including the Justice GA, the Congregations and Beyond initiative, the use of offsite delegates, and regionalization. All of those trends need to inform how the board moves forward, he said. “It seems strange to be considering four months after a Justice GA a business-only GA,” he said.
Jackoway also pointed out that the GA recently approved staggered three-year terms for trustee elections, which could not be accommodated if GA were held in alternate years. “We need to be aware that we have to undo things we’ve already agreed to,” he said. C bylaw changes, which require approval by delegates two years in a row, would also be affected, turning a two-year process into a four-year one.
Jackoway suggested that the board do more to subsidize delegates’ expenses to improve access to GA. One immediate way to do that, he said, would be to take the nearly $100,000 in savings the association will realize from having a smaller board and use it to subsidize delegates. He also recommended expanding the off-site delegate program that was fully implemented for the first time at GA 2012.
Tim Brennan, UUA treasurer and vice president of finance, raised several fallacies he found in the task force report. One was that a biennial GA saved the association money, a notion that is untrue because GA is a break-even proposition for the association. He cautioned that it could cost the association more money to hold biennial GAs, because the GA office would still be fully staffed each year even though it would only produce assemblies every other year.
The Rev. Jake Morrill, trustee from the Southeast District, reminded the board about the goal of their efforts. “Our focus in not how do we get to every other year, but how do we strengthen democracy,” he said.
Natalia Averett, Joseph Priestley District trustee, cautioned that, “We cannot change GA without causing great harm to some of the communities that are barely hanging on anyway. . . . A lot of the challenges are not whether we do one year or two years or four years, it’s how we include others.”
Moderator Gini Courter said she was not surprised by the many issues the conversation raised, and she said the board and the administration needed to ensure they were bringing a solution to all these issues, not just the governance piece. The board will continue to gather information on the issue before developing a proposal to bring to GA delegates.
The theme of the 2013 GA in Louisville, Ky., will be “From Promise to Commitment.” The board approved a small increase in fees, raising the fee for standard registration by $10. The 2013 GA fee schedule appears online.
The board received reports from several groups planning the 2013 GA, including the General Assembly Planning Committee and the General Assembly Mission of the Association Partnership.
The 2013 GA will include 18 hours of plenary time, plus a Candidates Forum for people running for election as president, moderator, financial advisor, and trustees. Because the 2012 Justice GA had a minimum of business, many business items were delayed and the next GA will need to catch up on association business.
The Ware lecturer will be Eboo Patel, founder and executive director of the Interfaith Youth Core, an international nonprofit building the interfaith youth movement. He is also the author of two Beacon Press books, Sacred Ground: Pluralism, Prejudice, and the Promise of America and Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation, which was the 2011–2012 UUA Common Read.
The board has requested more space for the youth and young adult caucuses. And the GA 2013 music director, David Glasgow, has said that he hopes to make the GA choir more diverse, including more youth and young adults.
The board approved a motion to sunset the Accountability Group that helped guide the planning of the 2012 Justice GA. That group was created by the board to ensure that the Justice GA was accountable to historically marginalized groups and to the spirit of the 2010 GA resolution calling for a Justice GA in Phoenix.
The board expressed its gratitude and appreciation for the group’s work in ensuring the success of Justice GA. In future GA’s the work of that group will be integrated into the General Assembly Planning Committee.
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Michelle Bates Deakin, a member of First Parish Unitarian Universalist of Arlington, Massachusetts, was a UU World contributing editor from 2006 to 2011 and a UU World senior editor from 2011 to 2014. She is the author of Social Action Heroes: Unitarian Universalists Who Are Changing the World (Skinner House, 2011) and Gay Marriage, Real Life: 10 Stories of Love and Family (Skinner House, 2006).
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