In his address to the assembled throng at the 2008 General Assembly on Thursday, UUA President William G. Sinkford reiterated his commitment to develop and support UU ministers of color and to achieve an effective and comprehensive youth ministry. He also referenced the success of the UUA's advertising campaign, an increase in the number of UU military chaplains, and the Association's successful witness on behalf of same-sex marriage, most recently in California. This was Sinkford's penultimate GA report; his term as UUA president will end immediately after the 2009 General Assembly.
But before Sinkford's report, which came near the end of the morning's plenary session, UUA Board of Trustees secretary Paul Rickter announced that 2,871 people had registered thus far for General Assembly. Of this number, he said 1,286 were official delegates representing 460 congregations from 50 states, four Canadian provinces, the United Kingdom, and Germany, and 144 were youth. With these numbers, UUA moderator Gini Courter pronounced a quorum and officially opened the session for business.
The Diversity of Ministry program has been one of the foundational blocks of Sinkford's presidency. "Our track record in supporting ministers of color and welcoming their leadership is abysmal," he said. "Through the Diversity in Ministry Program, we're intentionally working closely with congregations to prepare them to accept ministry from these very talented ministers of color, and to help congregations deal openly and proactively with issues of race," he said. "As we strive to live out our commitment to become an antiracist, antioppressive, and multicultural faith, there are few goals that are more important than this one."
The improvement of youth ministry has also been one of Sinkford's major commitments. "We've all come to realize that our support for youth at the congregational level has been woefully inadequate," he said. "We know that the development of UU identity for our youth is critical to the long-term success of our movement, so the question we need to answer is how best to cultivate this identity?" He referred to the success of the Consultation on Ministry to and with Youth, a three-year process that surveyed thousands of individual UUs and congregations about youth ministry needs, resulting in numerous recommendations for improvement. Sinkford also alluded to recent problems for some UU youth (one of which was cutting funding for the Young Religious Unitarian Universalists group). "My commitment to a truly comprehensive youth ministry could not be stronger," he assured listeners. "We will get there, together."
In the achievements column, Sinkford described the UUA's successful ad campaign this past year. "We tested advertising on Google last fall, and our success was dramatic. Over a six-week period, we placed UU ads on the Google search results page, and we generated just under 10,000 new visitors to our website," he said. Despite the encouraging numbers, Sinkford urged caution. "We're still only growing as a national movement at one percent or less per year, according to the congregational certification numbers," he said. "We know we can do better. We know we must do better."
Another encouraging development has been the growth in the number of military chaplains—both active and in training—during Sinkford's administration, from two to 13. Sinkford requested a round of applause for six of the chaplains who were sitting in the audience.
And in the realm of public witness, Sinkford pointed to the recent California Supreme Court decision to allow same-sex couples to wed, highlighting the activities of the Rev. Lindi Ramsden, head of the UU Legislative Ministry of California, an organization that played a key role in mobilizing UU support.
Several other speakers addressed the crowd during the plenary session. GA Planning Committee chair Beth McGregor held up her committee's efforts to plan "green" meetings. "By recycling, saving energy and water, and using our purchasing power to encourage green vendors we are helping to change each site we visit," she said. "This year we are purchasing 30 percent of our power from environmentally friendly sources."
The Rev. Orlanda Brugnola, head of the UUA's Commission on Appraisal, described the next multiyear project that her team would be undertaking: a review of Unitarian Universalism's Principles and Sources. The Rev. Barbara Child, a commission member, outlined some of the difficulties inherent in researching such a project. "Should all opinions that come to us be weighed on merit or should more weight by given to congregational responses than individual ones?" she asked. "More to solicited responses than to unsolicited? More to lay than clergy? Should we feel free to propose changes that we see as appropriate and beneficial if no one outside of the commission has proposed them?" Brugnola said that her team would send initial proposals to the board in January 2009.
The UU Fellowship of Wayne County in Wooster, Ohio, was recognized as one of this year's four Breakthrough Congregations, meaning that it had been identified as a church growing in both numbers and in the quality of its worship and programming. A 12-minute video featuring the congregation was shown. Each of the breakthrough congregations will have a similar opportunity during later plenary sessions.
And lest it be thought that the morning's meeting was only talk, GA musical director Sara Dann Jones kept the crowd active and alert by leading them in song.