June meeting of congregational representatives to use Open Space Technology to identify UUA's goals.
Called Open Space Technology, the process will help delegates and other GA participants decide which issues the UUA will focus on in the years to come. People will gather in large and small groups and, with the use of flipcharts and facilitators, will identify issues and topics that are important to them. If enough other people pick the same topics, those will be the ones at the top of the list.
Open Space Technology is a tool that has been in use for about 20 years. It enables groups of any size to address complex issues and come up with meaningful results quickly, according to Open Space World, a website dedicated to the process. It has been used in widely diverse settings, from designing products in manufacturing settings to creating social justice programs.
In Open Space a facilitator explains the process, but participants have the responsibility of creating the day’s agenda and discussing their passions. At the end of the day or week the ideas that have garnered the most support become the basis for the organization’s future actions.
Helen Bishop, director of the Starr King School for the Ministry’s Seminary for the Laity and former district executive of the UUA’s Central Midwest District, is coordinator of the Open Space process at GA. She has used Open Space in leadership schools and at district events.
“It’s a very grassroots, bottom-up planning tool,” she said. “It enables groups like the UUA Board of Trustees to receive feedback from as many congregations as send delegates to GA as to the priorities they have for the UUA.”
Each Open Space process is driven by a theme statement. The one chosen for GA is: “In today’s complex world, what is our mission as a faith community?”*
Why are we doing Open Space at this particular GA? Bishop said: “It’s been many years since the UUA as a body has examined its mission and vision statements and thought deeply about how we should position ourselves as a faith community. It’s time to do that. Also, the Board of Trustees is looking at policy governance [a management process in which the board makes policy decisions, delegating the execution of these policies to staff], and the Commission on Appraisal is doing a multiyear examination of the UUA Principles and Purposes, something that is required by our bylaws every few years. There is also a discussion across the UUA about how we should be doing ministry to and with youth.”
“All of these things will be informed by what congregational leaders consider to be important issues,” said Bishop, “and that’s what Open Space can be helpful with. It permits the participants to bring their own concerns to the fore without a framework being imposed by the board. The board will respond to what the participants come up with.”
After facilitators explain how Open Space works during the Thursday morning plenary session, June 21, those GA attendees who want to participate will divide into 10 groups of equal size. Those groups will meet and then divide into smaller groups. There could be a total of 120 small groups, Bishop said. The groups will meet daily throughout GA.
On Saturday, each of the 10 groups will be asked for three sentences expressing the priorities of that group. Delegates will discuss the 30 sentences in a plenary session on Saturday and will prioritize them Sunday, the last day of GA.
All GA attendees can participate in the Open Space process through Friday, but after that only official GA delegates will engage in determining the priorities to be handed to the Board of Trustees.
Bishop said the Open Space process will enable people whose voices are seldom heard to have a say. “What we want to know is what people care passionately about,” she said. “What the board wants is some sense of how our member congregations prioritize issues related to how we should be as a faith community in the larger world.”
Bishop said she is hopeful that congregational leaders, once exposed to Open Space, will find it a useful tool in their own congregations. “It can be a way to bring in outside community voices, to expand the conversation beyond your own congregation,” she said.
All Souls UU Church in Kansas City, Mo., held an Open Space exercise in 1997 when the congregation was assessing its future as it prepared to call a new minister. “It changed our culture,” said longtime All Souls leader Sharon Blevins. “We were a congregation in which it was easy to say, ‘Why don’t they do something about x?’ Open Space invited us to talk about what we were passionate about and it put us in a position to make those things happen. That was the beginning of our renewed sense of ownership of who we are as a congregation.”
Most recently All Souls used Open Space to decide what its new diversity task force should do. “What came out of it was a sense of direction for the task force,” said Blevins. “It helped us be clear about the issues and where the energy was.”
All Souls is one of four congregations chosen this year as a breakthrough congregation by the UUA Growth Task Force. It has grown by 200 members, to 528, in the past six years.
The Rev. Fran Dew was interim minister at the Unitarian Church of Davenport, Iowa, when the Open Space Technology process was used there in 2000. The congregation was between called ministers and the process helped it decide what it wanted to accomplish in its interim year.
“Out of it came remarkable energy,” said Dew. “It helped create a sense of purpose and it inspired new people to step forward and do things. It really set the congregation up with a good sense of purpose and camaraderie for the year.”
It’s important, she said, that leaders respect the process. “They have to agree to respect the results of the day so you don’t put out energy and creativity and then that energy doesn’t go anywhere.”
She added, “Part of the success depends on educating people beforehand, so everyone has an idea of what the process is. Seeing this used at GA could inspire a lot of congregations to use it who never thought about it.”
Dew acknowledged that to some people Open Space Technology sounds chaotic. “There were several people at Davenport who wanted more structure, but most people in the group were fine with it.”
Barb Greve, a graduate this spring of Starr King School for the Ministry in Berkeley, Calif., used Open Space Technology at the seminary to create a discussion group “to engage in deep theological questions.
“Another student and I wanted a group,” he said, “but we didn’t want to dictate the questions. So we used Open Space to invite fellow students, faculty, and staff to decide what topics we would engage in. Because of that, anyone who came in felt able to engage in the conversation and direct where it would go. The direction of the conversation would change from week to week based on the passion of the people in the room.” The group, begun in 2003, is continuing, Greve said.
Some of the Open Space discussions at GA will take place concurrently with conventional GA workshops on other topics, noted Bishop. People can choose to go to either. Open Space attendance is entirely voluntary.
Correction 6.6.07: An earlier version of this story quoted an outdated version of the central theme question for the Open Space conversations as it appeared on UUA.org's Open Space Technology page. The UUA.org page has now been updated. Click here to return to the corrected paragraph.
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Donald E. Skinner was the founding editor of the InterConnections newsletter for congregational leaders and a senior editor of UU World from 1998 until his retirement in 2014. He is a member of the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church in Lenexa, Kansas.