The UUA's longest serving moderator reflects on a legacy of volunteer leadership.
UU World: You have served two full terms as moderator of the Unitarian Universalist Association (2005–2013). Before that you served out the last twenty months of your predecessor’s term. That means you have chaired more General Assemblies and more Board of Trustees meetings than any other person in the UUA’s history.
Gini Courter: [laughter]
UU World: You have introduced bigger changes in our governance than anyone had since the Unitarian-Universalist merger in 1961: a smaller board, elected by the General Assembly rather than by geographical districts; shorter terms for all future presidents and moderators and changes to the way candidates are selected; and, of course, the board’s adoption of Policy Governance. You have initiated a conversation about the General Assembly itself: who is represented by it, what its purpose is, and how to make it accountable. What is the significance of the changes you and the board have introduced?
Courter: The board has worked diligently and with a clear focus on ensuring that we have good governance that reflects who we are as a religious people, that we don’t have the governance that Episcopalians have, or the governance that Methodists have, or Mormons—that we actually have governance that comes from our congregations.
The Rev. Alice Blair Wesley said that, in 1961, at the time of the merger, folks never dreamed of needing to say in the bylaws that congregations would be represented by elected leaders. People fought to be on church boards to be part of those conversations. They would only trust their ministers and their elected laypeople to represent them at General Assembly, because it was so important: it was about who we were and who we would become.
We slipped over the next forty-two years to a General Assembly that really was a good summer conference. I would hear leaders say, “Well, why would you take that to the General Assembly? It’s not like they represent anyone.” If we as an association of congregations allowed the General Assembly to become self-satisfied and self-selecting, that doesn’t change the fact that they’re the people who make the major decisions in our faith. Or are supposed to.
So the GA Planning Committee in a leap of faith spent the General Assembly’s reserves down to help try to re-democratize General Assembly [by subsidizing congregational presidents to come to GA from 2004 through 2008]. In that first year, one-quarter of our congregational presidents came.
UU World: What happened to that initiative?
Courter: The money had come out of the reserves, and we spent it down. We assumed that we would be able to go from subsidizing presidents, to congregations seeing the value and wanting to send their presidents. I talked to one congregation, in 2009 or so, and I said to their board, “In all this affluence that I’m witnessing, why don’t you pay for your congregational president to go to GA?” They said, “Because that adds another layer of work on to the job. We might have people who wouldn’t choose to be our president if it meant they also had to go to GA.”
If we national leaders vote on something and say, “Let’s do this—let’s lay this money out for this to happen,” it’s hard to expect a hundred percent buy-in when we then say, “and four years from now, you thousands of local leaders should figure out how to take the place of that project.” This is a challenge even if we’re trying to help change culture in ways that the congregations support. But some congregations did make a culture change toward sending their presidents. And that came out of presidents coming back and going, “You’ve got to go. You’ll learn so much that will help you.”
UU World: The most ambitious recommendations to change GA are still just that, but there are other governance changes the board has successfully implemented. What is important about some of them?
Courter: When Denny Davidoff was moderator [1993–2001], the board was doing everything in a committee of the whole. That’s difficult because even if every person is incredibly disciplined when we want to discuss something and everyone wants to make a one-minute statement about it, there’s your first half hour. What led this board finally to say it was time to have a smaller board was not about saving money, and it wasn’t about changing the basis of representation. The main motivation was to have a board that is small enough that it can develop the kind of intimacy of conversation that is required to do truly challenging work.
Yet board work is so hard for folks. Each meeting takes at least two workdays just for travel. It’s a lot to expect of people. The fact that three board meetings were held in Boston sure didn’t help, so we’re now meeting once a year outside of Boston. This past year we met eight times by phone as well.
When you change your meeting methods I think you change who gets attracted to the board. The board is younger now than it’s ever been. When I came on the UUA board [in 1995], I was the second youngest person ever to serve. I was 38. I felt like I cut the average age in the room by half, and I came from a different world than a lot of my colleagues. In my second year on the board, only four people had email. And I remember so distinctly coming in one night and I forgot to silence my cellphone and it went off. People were like, “Well, aren’t you important? You carry a phone with you!”
UU World: You have served more than eighteen years in elected office in the UUA. How did volunteer service come to be so important to you?
Courter: I was raised to be a volunteer. My father, who died last spring, was a district lay leader for his Methodist faith. He was the president of his congregation twice: once from 1956 to 1957, and the second time from 1959 until about 1985. My father lived a life of service. My mother, her church was public education. She was the secretary of her school board. She was the person who would get called—you know, “Somebody didn’t show up to help open up polls for the elections today. Can you come?” My younger sister just retired as a major general with the Civil Air Patrol. She’s been the national commander, and that’s a volunteer job. This is my family.
UU World: What has been most rewarding about your service to the Association?
Courter: I get to work with amazing people. I’m not the only person who volunteers that way. Most folks who work in so-called regular jobs who serve on the UUA board or the GA Planning Committee or the Ministerial Fellowship Committee use every vacation and personal day they have to do that work. But I’m the example a congregational president holds up to their partner or spouse to say, “I’m not the only crazy person in the world, leave me alone.” There are a ton of us crazy people who are committed volunteers for church life. They’ve made some choices. You make a choice that you’ll retire early or cut back on your regular paid work. Or you’ll go without some things, maybe vacations with the rest of your family or maybe even starting a family. All of those things wait because what we’re doing right now is important. There’s a lot of reward in that.
UU World: What has been challenging in giving so much time to the Association?
Courter: It made my work life a challenge. I have clients who have been waiting for me not to have something at the end of June every year. It is a lot of time and it’s a lot of travel. I have spent a lot of time with congregations because it was clear that it was needed and it was something that made a difference. But in the past eighteen months I have ramped back in the amount of time I spend out with congregations, because I think that whoever’s next can figure out in their own way what their job is.
UU World: Do you feel a sense of personal vocation in the work you’ve done with congregations? Will it continue after you’re no longer moderator?
Courter: I’m already being invited to do keynotes for congregations and districts. One of the things we desperately need more work on is governance. We don’t yet have the practice in place of helping congregations develop their lay leadership to do the lay half of shared ministry, which is really governance.
When I became moderator I realized that I knew a whole cadre of brilliant professional skilled clergy that I kept running into. I was looking for a cadre of laypeople to match. It should be ten times as big. But it seemed like every time a layperson started exercising some passion or speaking out of a deep place, the response was, “Why don’t you go to seminary?” Shared ministry isn’t meant to be between people who are clergy and people on their way to being clergy. Shared ministry is about laypeople supporting a professional ministry and about having the best-run governance that we can, to create the spaces that are required for congregations to thrive.
So one of the first things I said was, “We need to start doing things to help lay leaders.” When I look at the things I started that I wish we had done better or had done more of, it is revivifying lay leadership.
UU World: Early in your tenure you and President William G. Sinkford frequently invoked the mantra “congregations come first.”
Courter: We hit a sweet spot. Bill spoke easily about the saving power of congregational life. He believed in it. He wanted to make sure that we were doing everything we could to help congregations grow up and grow together. At the same time we had a great deal of interest not just on the board but all over the Association to look at some of these really tough things we were trying to handle.
The Congregations Come First initiative came out of a question. Time after time the District Presidents Association and the staff person who was in charge of districts would try to fund the districts equitably. Districts had been created at the time of merger for political and fiscal reasons. Back then, we made deals with folks who had pots of money we were trying to entice into the General Investment Fund; we weren’t asking the kinds of questions we might ask today, about how we are going to deliver services. But the money coming in wasn’t equitable. In one district, maybe only 60 percent of the congregations were Fair Share contributors to the Annual Program Fund. In Michigan we once hit 100 percent. But the districts were each set up with their own funding formulas, and raised much of their own money. We couldn’t make the money coming in be equitable until we asked, “Are there core services that congregations need that the UUA should provide?”
We needed to have a bigger conversation, so we went to different groups and asked each one to send two people. We had all these folks sitting around the table and we’re laying this out, what this problem is, and then saying, “OK, let’s make some proposals.” If you go back and read the two reports that the Congregations Come First group did [in 2006 and 2008], we were the best R&D group the UUA’s ever had because all the proposals we laid out increased regionalization. We were fine with saying, “Yeah, we were told we can’t touch that. We’re going to talk about it anyway.”
I remember meeting with the district staff. There was a lot of unhappiness in the room about asking districts to be different. A lot of people told me either, “Just have the board vote on what you want and we’ll do it,” or “You can’t make us do that.” But within three years those same folks were crossing every boundary there was to work together. We weren’t having one minute of “Why would I go work with the district next to mine? They don’t help pay my salary.” All of that was gone. Just by stirring the pot hard and eventually walking away we enabled a shift. When we said clearly that the status quo wasn’t going to stand, people then really got that there was a genuine invitation to experiment.
UU World: Is there a leadership tip here?
Courter: I really do almost always care more about the process than a specific outcome, and I have a huge tolerance for chaos. I’m a believer in the thing we haven’t tried yet. Be willing to risk that the people who love this faith will actually come up with a solution you could never have found on your own no matter how darned smart you are. You know?
This article appeared in the Fall 2013 issue of UU World (pages 26-30). Photograph (above): Gini Courter presides at the 2012 General Assembly (© Nancy Pierce/UUA).
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Christopher L. Walton was the editor of UU World and director of the UUA’s Periodicals staff group until June 2021. He holds degrees from Harvard Divinity School and the University of Utah.