Donna Harrison, Vice Moderator of the UUA Board of Trustees. © Nancy Pierce/UUA
Should the General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association be free to everyone? Should it be held every other year? Is its purpose for governance, networking, theological discussion, community—all of these?
In short, how can GA be more democratic and reflect more fully the range of voices that Unitarian Universalism includes—including groups that are currently underrepresented?
An energetic crowd offered wide-ranging views on these issues during “Gathering for Purpose: Board Initiative to Re-Imagine GA,” a Saturday workshop at the 2014 General Assembly in Providence, R.I.
UUA Vice Moderator Donna Harrison led the discussion, which, she emphasized, was not about debating any specific proposals—such as biennial GA—but rather to gather input about the values underlying the GA, in order to develop something more concrete over the next few months.
Harrison will be posting a Survey Monkey to the UUA website in the next several days to gather additional comments from UUs across the country on this topic and will be reaching out to congregations as well. The board hopes to have more concrete proposals to share by the fall or winter, Harrison said.
On Saturday, Harrison shared draft proposals for rethinking GA, which grew out of a working group formed by the board last October, and which focus on four areas: inclusion, governance, why we gather, and commitment.
Of primary concern expressed by many Saturday is the high cost of attending GA—including travel, lodging, registration fees, and food—which makes participation unaffordable for many who might otherwise want to attend. This means the voices at GA are less diverse and the governance process less democratic, many noted. This is of serious concern, especially when questions under consideration at GA have significant impact on people of color, noted the Rev. Clyde Grubbs, a member of the UUA Board of Trustees.
“What about the people in my life who can’t be here because of cost? What can we do to make sure people I love can be here?” said Julian Sharp, another member of the UUA Board of Trustees, echoing a sentiment that many others shared. One delegate suggested that the UUA should make GA entirely free to anyone who wants to attend.
The draft principles note that the board is committed to making GA more inclusive by addressing barriers of cost, time, and physical accessibility. They also propose that the board examine whether the process of congregations offering governance direction to the UUA “may or may not be accomplished through large physical gatherings of UUs,” and that it explore how to leverage new technologies could be used to further governance work. The principles also recognize that there are many reasons people come to GA, including for identity groups to be empowered by coming together in a large gathering.
Harrison said the board will be continuing to gather input over the next months, through Survey Monkey and outreach to congregations, in order to have more specific proposals to share in the next six or so months.
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Elaine McArdle is a UU World senior editor and a member of First Unitarian Church in Portland, Oregon. An award-winning journalist with more than 20 years of experience, she has also written for the Boston Globe, Harvard Law Bulletin, and others.