Unitarian Universalism's army of volunteers

Unitarian Universalism's army of volunteers

UUA committee members contribute thousands of hours to make the Association work.
Jane Greer


Most people familiar with the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations know a few members of its staff, the public face of the Association. But a vast unseen army of volunteers does much of the Association’s work, ranging from accrediting ministers to overseeing the Association’s investments to choosing the Melcher Book Award winner. These are the more than 200 members of the twenty-five committees, panels, and task forces that donate their time to the Association and to the Unitarian Universalist movement.

Who are these people and how did they get the job? It’s one thing to volunteer at the congregational level, but how do you volunteer at the national level?

Some run for elected positions at the UUA’s General Assembly. Others apply for open positions or come through recommendations, said Pat Solomon, chair of the Committee on Committees—a comical-sounding name. The CoC’s mission, however, is important: finding qualified and dedicated volunteers to fill open slots for board-appointed committees and filling mid-term vacancies on elected and board-appointed committees. In looking for qualified people, Solomon said, “We try to get a balance between clergy and lay people, different age groups, and a diversity representative of our movement.”

Many of the committees, such as the Investment Committee, require subject expertise and a significant time commitment. All committees require at least one face-to-face meeting plus conference calls and email exchanges. Each committee has its own mission and requirements. Some committees, such as the Ministerial Fellowship Committee, are required to have a certain number of ministers as members.

So what’s in it for the volunteers?

Most committee members say they derive satisfaction from knowing that they are contributing to the cause of Unitarian Universalism, even in a small way. “I often tell people that it’s the best committee I ever sat on,” said the Rev. Mark Belletini, the minister of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Columbus, Ohio, about his eight years on the board-appointed Ministerial Fellowship Committee (MFC). His term ends this fall.

The MFC is in charge of credentialing UU ministers. It requires a fairly large investment of time, Belletini said. The Committee has three meetings a year, one in Boston, one in Chicago, and one in the San Francisco Bay area, each requiring a full week of work in preparation and attendance.

“I come back energized from meetings,” said the Rev. Monica L. Cummings, minister of the First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles, about her committee work. She is co-chair of the Journey Toward Wholeness Transformation Committee, a board-appointed group charged with monitoring the UUA’s efforts to become antiracist and antioppressive. “It helps feed my ministry.”

“There’s a lot of time involved,” she said. “We meet three times a year, twice in Boston.” In-between there’s constant email and phone communication between members. But committee service has been an ongoing education, she said. “I’ve learned so much from being on this committee.”

The Rev. Barbara Merritt, senior minister of the First Unitarian Church in Worcester, Mass., and chair of the Panel on Theological Education, said that committee service gives her a chance to volunteer for a change. “As a minister I depend on the work of volunteers,” she said. “I find it truly helpful to actually be a volunteer. You use different parts of yourself.”

“There’s something more satisfying about doing this work,” Merritt said. “Since it’s not required, it’s a new focus and a fresh challenge.”

The board-appointed Panel on Theological Education makes funding recommendations to the UUA board of trustees.

The opportunity to work with other dedicated UUs is a draw for many lay people.

John Hooper, a member of the Unitarian Church of Westport, Conn., who was elected to the Commission on Social Witness, appreciates the level of effort that committee service elicits. “It’s a joy working with such talented and committed people,” he said. “You do your best because everyone else is doing their best. And being a member of the same religious group, with shared values, makes the work even more gratifying.”

The purpose of the Commission on Social Witness (CSW) is to help congregations and the General Assembly formulate positions and take action on social justice issues. Hooper’s primary CSW responsibility at present is to guide the UUA’s first four-year congregational study-action issue on peacemaking through the UUA social witness process. The peacemaking core team meets by teleconference every other week, Hooper said. The full CSW also meets three weekends a year and at GA.

KokHeong McNaughton, a member of the Unitarian Church of Los Alamos, N.Mex., was elected by the General Assembly to a six-year term on the Nominating Committee in 2005. “I love working with these people and the sense of teamwork you get,” she said. The Nominating Committee finds candidates for elected committees. It holds one weekend meeting plus several meetings during General Assembly. In the meantime, much of the committee’s work is done through email. The committee’s efforts go in cycles, she said. “We just had an election at GA for various committees, so we are not as busy.”

The committee’s work is important to McNaughton. “We try to get the best leaders available and match them to the right committee,” she said. “We’re looking for the best combination of talent and ability.”

Not only does the committee find people to serve. It also nurtures leadership talent. “We might have an applicant for a committee position who we think needs more experience,” she said. “We would suggest that this person do some more volunteer work at the congregational or district level, and then apply again.”

Committee service can also bring frustrations. Ginger Brown, co-vice-chair of the General Assembly Planning Committee and a member of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Nashville, Tenn., loves the planning process in which she is involved, but cites complaints that committee members receive each year at GA as one of the few negative aspects of the job. “We’re trying to please so many people,” she said. “And it’s impossible to please them all!”

Joan Cudhea, a member of First Unitarian Universalist Church of San Diego, is completing her term on the board-appointed Committee on Socially Responsible Investing, which she chaired from 2003 to 2005. Serving in an advisory capacity was sometimes frustrating, she wrote in a recent email, because of “the difficulties of having no power, only influence with the Investment Committee.” However, she is gratified by the contributions that she was able to make. As chair, Cudhea was responsible for promoting a community investing policy adopted by the UUA and for initiating a regional daylong workshop on socially responsible investing. This workshop led to a more cost-efficient series of investment-related teleconferences for congregations around the country.

Committees are essential to the smooth operation of the Association, said UUA Executive Vice President Kay Montgomery. “The UUA is, by definition, a voluntary organization of congregations,” she wrote in a recent email, “and members of those congregations provide thousands of volunteer hours for the Association each year—as members of the board of trustees, elected committee members, committees appointed by the board, the moderator, the president, and staff. They bring professional and personal skills that complement paid staff work, provide guidance and policy-making, and broaden and deepen decision making.”

The UUA website features descriptions of each committee. Committee vacancies are posted on UUA-L, the UUA’s email list for official announcements, and at UUA.org.

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