Independent groups adapt to loss of affiliate status

Independent groups adapt to loss of affiliate status

UUA board says tighter rules for independent affiliates help congregations.
Donald E. Skinner


As the Unitarian Universalist Association’s board of trustees prepares this month to make its final rulings—for now—on which UU-related organizations can remain independent affiliates of the UUA, those organizations that recently lost that status are trying to determine what comes next for them.

In the past six months the board, in a process designed to focus the work of the UUA more closely on the needs of congregations, has denied independent affiliate status to most of the more than 40 independent affiliates. A year ago there were 46. In recent years there have been up to 60. Today there are four. When the board meets October 20-21, it will consider two more.

Denial of the groups is based on a new board checklist, adopted last year, for reviewing independent affiliate applications. The updated rules mandate that affiliates show a clear mission related to the UUA’s Purposes, not just its Principles, have a functional connection with UU congregations, a broad focus, and proof that they work in collaboration or coalition with other groups.

Tamara Payne-Alex, trustee-at-large and member of the First Unitarian Church of San Jose, Calif., is convener of the board’s working group dealing with the independent affiliates. She noted that the criterion that seems to be most difficult for groups to meet is collaboration—working with other groups and sharing resources. But it’s important, she said. “Before, we were rewarding people for not working together. We were discouraging all of the things we say and the principles we value.”

Denial of affiliate status has created turmoil within many of the affected groups, most of which are volunteer-led. They fear they are losing part of their ability to stay in touch with members and reach new ones. At the same time, they’re starting to reimagine a new future.

“We don’t understand completely why we were not recertified,” said the Rev. LoraKim Joyner, co-minister of the UU Fellowship of Gainesville, Fla., and president of UUs for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, one of the groups that lost its affiliate status. “We serve congregations and have connections across several institutions. Not having this recognition makes it harder for us to make connections with congregations. We’re not sure at this point how the UUA wants us, and other social justice organizations that serve congregations, to do this work.”

Being an independent affiliate includes having certain benefits. Affiliated groups have a virtual certainty of having a General Assembly workshop each year. They also get a description in the annual UUA Directory and on They receive reduced rates for advertising in UU World and a lower rate for booth space in the GA exhibit hall.

Part of the reason for the cutback in the number of affiliates is to make more GA time slots available to congregations. To facilitate that, the GA Planning Committee increased the number of workshops it sponsors from 19 this past year to 35 in 2008. Congregations as well as independent groups, including former affiliates, can apply for those slots. The deadline is October 15. “We’re trying to make it easier for congregations and for former affiliates,” said Beth McGregor, chair of the GA Planning Committee. “We want them to apply.”

Congregations and independent organizations can also vie for district slots. Each UUA district has two time slots at GA and they are encouraged to make one available to a congregation. Former affiliates with ties to a district can also apply for these. The deadline for these is November 30.

Among the groups disaffiliated this spring and summer by the board are several theology-based groups including the UU Buddhist Fellowship, the UU Christian Fellowship, the Covenant of UU Pagans, and UUs for Jewish Awareness.

The Rev. Wayne Arnason, co-minister of West Shore UU Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and a leader of the UU Buddhist Fellowship, said his group is considering what to do next. “We need access to two resources in order to thrive—a GA workshop and access to the website. The UUA Directory is not as important to us, nor is UU World advertising, which we can’t afford even at reduced rates.” The group could join a coalition with other theology groups, he said, “but it would not really benefit us.”

Arnason was on the UUA board when discussions began about independent affiliates. “A big motivator was GA, to move it in a direction where it focused more on the needs of congregations,” he said.

He acknowledged that the process for becoming an independent affiliate probably had been “too wide open and too easy. For a hundred dollar application fee anyone could apply to be an affiliate and that affiliation might be used in ways that didn’t really promote the purposes of the organization.”

The Rev. Anita Farber-Robertson, interim senior minister at First Parish in Cambridge, Mass., and chair of the UU Christian Fellowship, is struggling with the board’s decision to disaffiliate the UUCF. “A lot of real personal pain was generated by this decision,” she said. “I think that’s probably true for the other theology-based groups that thought they were doing the work of Unitarian Universalism and then felt marginalized and dismissed as if they were not significant.”

She believes it would be very hard for UUCF to create an umbrella group with other groups. “We’re all volunteers. We can barely keep on top of serving our membership. To spend time creating an infrastructure that we’re not sure we want, I’m not sure we’d do that.”

The group UU Women and Religion, which describes itself as a network of district women’s organizations and individuals, was also not reconfirmed this year. It supports equality issues and is currently republishing the feminist theology curriculum Cakes for the Queen of Heaven. “The major benefit for us has been a GA workshop and booth,” said Gretchen Ohmann, secretary of the group. She said the group is talking about joining with other groups, but has not decided what to do. “It’s not a bad thing to reinvent relationships when you need to. But it does take work, and we’re a volunteer organization.”

Another group that was dropped is UUs for Drug Policy Reform. It became an affiliate group when GA delegates adopted a statement of conscience in 2002 for just and compassionate drug policies. “We’re not really bothered now by not being an affiliate,” said executive director Charles Thomas. “We have a 1,500-member database of UUs working on this issue, and we’re active in the congregations and in interfaith work. It was nice to have a GA workshop, but GA is a small part of what we do.”

UUA Moderator Gini Courter hopes the former affiliates will find ways to work with each other, including coming together in coalitions. “Someone suggested a Spiritual Paths group for the theological affiliates,” said Courter. “If that happened we’d have a group the Planning Committee and the board could work with. We just can’t continue relating as a board to 60 groups.”

She emphasized that the board “has respect and gratitude” for the affiliates. “The problem was that we had this one-size-fits-all category. Now we’re hoping for different outcomes, allowing people to be in really good relationships with other people.”

Payne-Alex said that the affiliate process was going well. “It’s been a very healthy process. Overall people have been supportive when they hear what the process is and what our goals are.”

The four groups that have been accepted by the board under the new rules are: DRUUMM (Diverse and Revolutionary Unitarian Universalist Multicultural Ministries), a UU people of color organization; Universalist Convocations, a consortium of Universalist conventions; CU2C2 (Council of UU Camps and Conferences); and UU Urban Ministry, a coalition of Massachusetts congregations working on justice issues. Two more affiliates—UU Partner Church Council and UU Ministry for Earth are to be considered at the October board meeting.

Other categories of UU-related organizations are not affected by the board’s actions on independent affiliates. They include the three associate member organizations: UU Service Committee, UU United Nations Office, and the UU Women’s Federation. There are also two sponsored organizations: Continental Unitarian Universalist Young Adult Network and the Young Religious UU Adult Network; and five professional organizations: Association of UU Administrators, Liberal Religious Educators’ Association, the Society for Community Ministries, UU Ministers Association, and UU Musicians’ Network.

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