UUA board considers far-reaching governance reform

UUA board considers far-reaching governance reform

Trustees plan to propose changes to General Assembly, trim board, and formalize new regional structure; election changes placed on 2010 GA agenda.

Jane Greer


The UUA Board of Trustees is contemplating a radical change to the governance of the Unitarian Universalist Association that would involve reducing the size of the board, creating a system of regions to supplement the current 19 districts, and reconfiguring General Assembly to a biennial meeting with subsidized delegates.

The language of the proposal, which the board began drafting at its January meeting but did not vote on at that time, will be finalized and voted on in an all-board conference call within the next two weeks. According to John Blevins, UUA trustee from the Prairie Star District and head of the Governance working group, it is not yet known what form the final statement will take.

Added 1.29.10: Blevins said in a followup interview that the board will hold a special meeting by phone on Thursday, February 4, at 7:00 pm Eastern Time to continue discussion and act on a motion to transform UUA governance. The call is open to observers, but the number of places is limited. An announcement will be made via the UU-Leaders email list when the agenda and phone instructions have been posted on the UUA website.

In other business at its January 13–17 meeting in San Antonio, Tex., the board passed motions to place a series of bylaw changes concerning the election of the UUA president and moderator on the 2010 General Assembly agenda. The amendments would establish single six-year terms for the UUA president and moderator. Other bylaw amendments describe the composition and formation of a presidential search committee, outline the nomination process for the president and moderator, and describe the process of nominating officers by petition. Delegates will vote on these amendments at the General Assembly in Minneapolis in June 2010. They will require a two-thirds majority vote to be implemented.

The January meeting was historic for its venue: San Antonio. This is the third time in 49 years that the board has met outside of Boston, with the exception of meetings held at the annual General Assembly. San Antonio is the largest city in the country that has a majority Latino/Latina population. During its four-day stay, the board met with local leaders who talked about immigration and education issues. The trustees also met with local UU congregations.

The board will be talking about meeting in other cities on a regular basis, according to UUA Moderator Gini Courter. The meeting in San Antonio was important, Courter told UU World, in exposing trustees to various forms of UU culture as well as to the multiculturalism of some UU congregations. "I'm a child of the Midwestern Unitarian Conference," she said. "I fell in love with the Chicago version of this faith. To me, it's a basic issue: If you never come to see me, how can you know who I am?"

The proposed governance changes are motivated by “a desire to bring a clearer focus to our national UUA vision and more democracy, accountability, and effectiveness to UUA governance,” said Blevins. The changes, he said, were related in part to the board’s move in 2009 to Policy Governance, a system of governance in which the board is charged with formulating policy while the staff is responsible for executing it. “Policy Governance is about getting clearer about the accountability of all of our organizations—all of our elected bodies, the districts, and the staff,” he said. “People know what they’re responsible for and who they report to. As we begin to get clearer about that, we begin to ask questions, such as, ‘What is the role of the district?’ for example.” Blevins emphasized that the board was only at the beginning of its work exploring all of the issues surrounding the proposed governance changes.

Work is already in progress on transforming General Assembly and establishing regions, however.

The proposed changes to General Assembly are based on a report by the Fifth Principle Task Force that was distributed to the board in late December. Task force chair Joe Sullivan and former UUA Moderator Denise Davidoff discussed the report’s recommendations with the board in San Antonio.

The Fifth Principle Task Force, named for the UUA’s Fifth Principle, which affirms “the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large,” was officially commissioned by the UUA board in October 2007 to examine the content and configuration of General Assembly as a governance vehicle. The task force examined the way delegates are selected and function in the Association’s decision-making at GA; it did not focus on GA’s programmatic side, which consists of workshops, worship services, lectures, and social events. General Assembly, as the report states, was set up by the UUA bylaws for the purpose of governance.

The report advocates subsidizing delegates, which it says would help young and low-income delegates attend; educating delegates about issues in advance and making them accountable to both the General Assembly and their congregations; and encouraging regional cooperation among congregations. The delegate number would be decreased from a maximum of 5,000 to approximately 2,000, and some of those who have had delegate status, including ministers emeriti and emeritae, UUA trustees, and representatives of the three UUA Associate Organizations—the UU Service Committee, the UU United Nations Office, and the UU Women’s Federation—would no longer be delegates.

The report further says that one means of funding GA delegates could come from reducing the size of the board, which would save money. (As uuworld.org reported earlier, the cost of subsidizing delegates could be as much as $1.27 million.)

Any of these changes would require amending the UUA bylaws by the General Assembly. The board has not yet drafted any amendments or set a timeline for introducing changes at GA.

At the district level, regionalization has already been a fact of life for some time now, said the Rev. Harlan Limpert, UUA vice president of Ministries and Congregational Support, who was an observer at the board meeting. Districts have been gravitating towards regional events as a way to better use resources and to reach a broader audience with their programming. “Over ten years ago, district staff members in various districts began getting together informally for training, mutual support, and to explore best practices,” he told UU World. “Over the last five years or so, district staff members in neighboring districts have gotten together to put on leadership development conferences. When districts combine forces they can provide better services, better workshops, and better conferences to congregations.”

Limpert said that the district structure, set up in 1961, currently has one district with 15,000 members and another with 3,500. Some districts contain several large states, while Massachusetts has congregations in three districts.

“There are a lot of different ways of organizing a denomination,” he added. “What we’re trying to do is figure out the very best way to service and support congregations and to give people in our Association meaningful opportunities to provide leadership to our faith.”

The District Presidents Association met in November 2009 with UUA President Peter Morales, Limpert, Courter, and several members of the UUA board to begin their own talks about how regional and district leadership could best support the UUA’s goals.

In terms of reducing the UUA board’s size from 23 to a lower number, Morales said that the idea was nothing new. “The board has been talking about reducing itself in size for decades,” he told UU World after the meeting. “There’s long been a recognition that the size of our board is cumbersome and very expensive.”

In his report to the board, Morales said that further cuts to the UUA’s budget were inevitable. “There is no way on the heels of a $4 million cut this year that we can sustain operations the way they’ve been.” He told the board that as an exercise he had asked all staff groups to prioritize their activities, identifying possible cuts of 25 percent. The results of this exercise will be reviewed by Morales and the UUA’s Leadership Council, which consists of all department heads. “It’s no fun cutting budgets,” he said. “Everything we do has a constituency. But we need to focus on what’s essential.”

UUA Treasurer and Vice President of Finance Tim Brennan said that the forecast for fiscal year 2011 was not yet ready.

Morales also said that immigration would be one of the Association’s top public witness issues. “It’s going to be a priority for every religious organization,” he told UU World. “It’s an ethical and moral issue that goes to the core of human dignity, compassion, and justice. One of the challenges for us is to be an effective voice in league with other religious voices.” He told trustees that they might have some unusual allies on this issue. “The American Association of Evangelicals produced a policy statement in November that we could have written,” he said.

Limpert told the board that a seven-person team had been assembled to start a strategic and comprehensive review of ministries provided by congregationally based religious professionals. This team will review ministry practices over the past 20 years and will develop a strategic plan for ministries starting in 2020 and beyond. The group will be looking into ministerial recruitment, education and formation, credentialing and certification, placement, and continuing education and development.

Linda Laskowski, trustee from the Pacific Central district, reported that the Linkage Working Group, which under Policy Governance supports the board’s dialogue with its “sources of authority and accountability,” would continue to investigate the issues surrounding the lack of a national structure for the development of youth leadership. The working group will be reviewing two reports on youth and young adult ministry submitted to the board last April and will be gathering information from conversations that board members have been having with youth in their districts. Laskowski said that the working group intended to present its recommendations at the October board meeting.

The board also:

  • Passed a motion to proceed with planning for the 2014 General Assembly or other kind of national assembly in Providence, R.I.;

  • Accepted monitoring reports from UUA staff for policies 2.6 (Availability of Benefits for Related Organizations) and 2.10 (Asset Protection) but said that the reports were still lacking and would need remedial work in their next iteration; and

  • Put bylaw amendments concerning the removal of trustees and committee members for good cause on the 2010 GA agenda.

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Correction 2.2.10: As originally published, this article misspelled the name of the Prairie Star District.