UUA shifts international focus to congregations

UUA shifts international focus to congregations

Sinkford’s presidency focused less on institutional alliances, set up resources for churches seeking international partners.
Jane Greer


During his eight years as president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, the Rev. William G. Sinkford has transformed the UUA’s relationships with international groups, moving away from concentrating on the UUA’s own international and interfaith partners toward encouraging congregations to form transnational partnerships themselves.

In the process, the UUA has scaled back its support for one historic partner organization, formalized its partnership with two internationally focused UU groups, and established the Office of International Resources to support the international engagement of North American congregations.

President Sinkford, working with the UUA Board of Trustees, issued the blueprint for these changes in October 2004 in an International Vision Statement that calls upon the Association and its member congregations to model friendship and right relations, promote human rights and religious freedom, and to increase the visibility of Unitarian Universalism as “an active positive religious presence in the world.” The document pledges that the UUA will support congregations in their individual efforts to connect with “the transforming power of international engagement and partnership.”

Sinkford said that the new vision was part of a broader effort to make support of congregations the UUA’s primary goal. “The major shift in our international policy had to do with our understanding that our primary task is to deepen the spiritual life and engagement of congregations,” he said, “rather than focusing on support for particular organizations or initiatives.”

Sinkford has also worked to systematize the web of historic alliances, covenants, and policies that have constituted the Association’s international relations over the past hundred years. “In the past, our international relationships and international work were really at the whim of the sitting president,” he said. “If that president were very invested in one particular organization, it tended to get a lot of support. That did not seem to be a healthy way for us to manage our international work.”

To implement the new vision statement, Sinkford formed an international advisory council and an ambassadors program; signed covenants—called “memos of understanding”—with the Unitarian Universalist Partner Church Council and the International Council of Unitarians and Universalists; sharply cut funding to the International Association for Religious Freedom; and reorganized the UUA’s international office to focus on supporting the work of congregations.

The International Vision Statement affirmed what was already happening in many congregations. About 200 churches have formed their own international relationships with congregations or organizations abroad through the UU Partner Church Council, while others have found groups they wanted to support all by themselves. Some churches are involved with micro-financing programs, in which they send money to help grassroots organizations abroad finance local industry. Others directly support orphanages or schools in developing countries.

In 2007, the UUA reorganized its International Office into the Office of International Resources and hired the Rev. Eric Cherry to lead it. The office’s primary purpose is to support congregations in their individual efforts to establish relationships with organizations or institutions abroad. The Office of International Resources offers an international engagement database that catalogs opportunities available for congregations wanting to begin international work; provides congregational profiles describing ways that UU congregations are already engaged internationally; sponsors an international engagement workshop; and publishes a bi-monthly newsletter as well as a monthly devotional website, “Gathering Global U/U Voices.”

Shortly after the UUA reorganized its international office, it started to reexamine its relationships with three groups doing work abroad: the UU Partner Church Council, the International Council of Unitarians and Universalists, and the International Association for Religious Freedom. The UUA formalized its relationship with the first two groups and drastically reduced funding to the third.

The UU Partner Church Council

Although the Unitarian Universalist Partner Church Council was formally founded in 1993, it began life in the 1980s when American and British Unitarians helped resettle Transylvanian Unitarians fleeing the Ceausescu regime. Transylvania, a 39,000-square-mile area in the northwestern quadrant of Romania, has been home to Unitarianism since the sixteenth century. Sixty thousand Unitarians still live there and the area supports around 120 Unitarian churches. Transylvanian Unitarians are ethnically and linguistically Hungarian, and the area has historically been under both Romanian and Hungarian control. These Transylvanians have been discriminated against as an ethnic and religious minority over the years.

Transylvanian Unitarians had been aware of co-religionists in Britain and America since Unitarians in those countries organized under the Unitarian name in 1825. After World War I, when Transylvanian Unitarians found themselves under Romanian rule, and suffering economically, British and American Unitarians sent aid. But relations at the congregational level were few until the 1980s, when the oppressions of the Ceausescu regime caused Unitarians in North America and Britain to reach out with more assistance.

In 1987, UUA President William F. Schulz and Moderator Natalie Gulbrandsen traveled to Transylvania to visit Unitarians. “When we went there,” Schulz said, “we met with government officials, somewhat pro forma meetings, but as a way to signal to people that there were other people watching.” In 1990, Schulz returned to Transylvania, this time with U.S. Rep. Chester Atkins, a UU from Concord, Mass. “I was hoping that the presence of a public official would reinforce the message that we had tried to send by keeping regular connections with Transylvanian Unitarians,” Schulz said. “That was the first congressional visit after Ceausescu’s fall.”

After meeting scores of Transylvanian Unitarians, Schulz became interested in setting up a program that would link North American UU congregations with Transylvanian Unitarian churches. He and Gulbrandsen worked to set up a “sister church” program that evolved into the UU Partner Church Council. The Council now oversees 140 active partnerships between North American congregations and churches mostly in Transylvania, the Philippines, and the Khasi Hills in India.

The UUA’s memo of understanding with the UU Partner Church Council outlines the roles and responsibilities of each organization. The UUA has pledged to maintain its financial support to the Partner Church Council ($60,000 a year); offered the use of UUA resources, including the Office of International Resources; promised to be in dialogue with the Council regarding congregation-to-congregation partnerships; and pledged to meet with UUPCC leaders at least once a year to discuss progress.

The Partner Church Council has promised to work with the UUA’s Office of International Resources as well as other UU organizations, such as the UU Service Committee, the International Council of Unitarians and Universalists, the Church of the Larger Fellowship, and the UU–United Nations Office, to deliver quality services to congregations, and to collaborate with the UUA in making policy.

The UU Partner Church Council has also set up a program called “Paths to Personal Partnership” in which small groups, such as religious education classes, and individuals can support a particular project overseas without making the long-term commitment required of the Partner Church program.

The Rev. John Buehrens, who served as UUA president from 1993 to 2001, praised the Partner Church Council model because it exposed North American UUs to a Unitarian world outside their own. “Our Unitarian brothers and sisters don’t do Unitarianism quite like we do,” Buehrens said. “It’s a different culture, a different heritage, a different theological tradition. We’ve had to learn what it is to travel under the same name with these differences.”

The International Council of Unitarians and Universalists

The International Council of Unitarians and Universalists (ICUU) was founded in 1995 after a five-day conference in Essex, Mass., attended by delegates from 16 countries. The group’s mission, according to its website, is to build relations between different UU groups through communication and collaboration; to develop spiritual community among member groups; to identify and nurture prospective and emerging groups; and to foster the growth of Unitarian Universalism. At present, the ICUU has 21 member organizations.

Like the Partner Church Council, the ICUU receives $60,000 from the UUA annually.

The ICUU has sponsored three leadership conferences for UU leaders in other countries—in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 2005; in Shillong in the Khasi Hills of India in 2006; and in Nairobi, Kenya, in 2008—offering training in Unitarian Universalist theology, leading worship, and conflict resolution. The ICUU holds biennial council meetings; the next one takes place in September 2009 in Kolozsvar, Romania. The ICUU has also sponsored theological symposia.

The UUA’s memo of understanding with the ICUU, like the agreement with the Partner Church Council, enumerates the responsibilities of both the ICUU and the UUA. The draft document outlines the ICUU’s responsibilities as a voice for Unitarian Universalism in the wider world, its charge to maintain and promote a network of communication between ICUU member and emerging groups, and its mission to encourage the sharing of experience as well as resources. The document also describes how the organization must be accountable to its constituents, providing a biennial report and budget to all ICUU member groups and partners, conducting a regular financial audit, and documenting progress on a five-year plan toward implementing a “fair share” system of financial support from ICUU member groups.

The UUA has pledged to communicate with ICUU, collaborate on programming initiatives, and advocate for ICUU with UUA member congregations. It will also continue its financial support and will participate in ICUU meetings and other ICUU programs.

The UUA’s board and ICUU’s executive committee are charged with overseeing the relationship. The Office of International Resources is also charged with providing program support and assistance.

International Association for Religious Freedom

This past year, the UUA dramatically cut its financial support for the International Association for Religious Freedom, a longtime international interfaith partner. The UUA reduced its support from $30,000 a year to $500 a year in fiscal year 2009.

The IARF has had a long-standing relationship with the UUA and one of its predecessors, the American Unitarian Association. However, the UUA’s needs had changed, according to former UUA President John Buehrens.

Buehrens said that when he began his presidency in 1993, he saw a need for more direct partnerships between North American UU groups and UU groups abroad. “We needed to be in partnership with them recognizing differences, not assuming that we could have an international empire overseas,” he said. ICUU, an organization promoting partnership with UUs overseas—especially in developing countries—could deliver this, he said, but the IARF, which promoted international relationships among like-minded religious groups, was less oriented to Unitarian Universalists.

IARF was founded by the American Unitarian Association in 1900 as the International Council of Unitarian and other Liberal Religious Thinkers and Workers, with a charter “to open communication with those in all lands who are striving to unite Pure Religion and Perfect Liberty.” In 1907, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and Roman Catholics participated in the opening ceremony of its congress. The group changed its name to the International Association for Liberal Christianity and Religious Freedom in 1939, and then to the International Association for Religious Freedom in 1969. IARF had strong UUA connections throughout the years, with former UUA President Eugene Pickett and former UUA Moderator Natalie Gulbrandsen serving as presidents. The UUA was also one of the organization’s greatest financial supporters.

The UUA began to reconsider its support of IARF after IARF began experiencing organizational and financial difficulties in the 1990s. “Those difficulties had to do with translating the goal of serving religious freedom to actual measurable benefits in or through member groups,” Buehrens said.

In 2008 the UUA decided to withdraw its support from IARF. “I think the UUA was generous and patient perhaps almost to a fault,” Buehrens said of the UUA’s support of IARF. “Ultimately, the good stewardship of limited resources comes into play.”

The UUA is still a member organization of IARF.

The discovery in recent years of new Unitarian Universalist groups in Africa has opened up new opportunities for international partnerships. Although UU churches have been in existence for many years in Capetown, South Africa, and Lagos, Nigeria, dozens of congregations have emerged in the last ten years in several other countries. Kenya has the fastest-growing UU population, with several dozen congregations and a total membership of more than 500. (See Unitarian Universalism in Africa, UU World, Summer 2009).

In November 2008, Sinkford and Cherry led a U.S. delegation on a 21-day trip to Africa to learn about social justice and human rights issues and to meet with some of the Unitarian Universalist groups in South Africa, Kenya, Uganda, and Nigeria.

During the trip, many of the African congregations expressed eagerness to form relationships with the UUA, Cherry said. Some of these congregations may soon be ready for a classic “church-to-church” partnership following the model of the Partner Church Council, he said. But, institutional relationships need to be better established before some of the partnerships are pursued, he added.

To deal with these requests, Cherry’s office developed a document called “Milestones of Right Relationship” to help clarify expectations of the relationship. “Any time that we’re thinking about going into a relationship with a new UU group, we need to proceed slowly and deliberately,” Cherry said. “The milestones help us do that.” The milestones, still in draft stage, specify minimum requirements for new UUA international partners, including requiring the group to be a member of ICUU, identifying people responsible for communication, having an accountable governing body, and being financially accountable.

Cathy Cordes, the Partner Church Council’s executive director, described how the Council is preparing African congregations for partnership. “We’ve given the African congregations information about partnership; we’ve also done a workshop at the ICUU conference twice,” she said. “We also have a new process that we’ve been using called Community Capacity Building that has communities overseas do an assessment: what their strengths are, what their weaknesses are, what areas they would like to be working on. It puts the control in the hands of the local community and then it gives the partners here a sense of how they can better be supportive of their partners in a way that is right relationship.”

The UUA is currently raising $100,000 to support international relationships between UU congregations in the United States and Africa. (See UUA.org/giving/AfricanPartnerships for more information.)

Finally, Sinkford set up a six-person international advisory council and a group of official ambassadors to represent the UUA in other parts of the world.

The advisory council, headed by former UUA President John Buehrens, was established in 2007. This group’s task is to “assist the UUA president in developing strategies and setting priorities towards the fulfillment of the UUA’s international goals.” The advisory council meets quarterly and is responsible for overseeing the UUA Ambassador Corps.

The purpose of the Ambassador Corps is to send individual UUA representatives to UU groups abroad. UUA ambassadors include the Rev. Abhi Janamanchi, ambassador to the Unitarian Union of North East India; the Rev. Fred Muir, ambassador to the UU Church of the Philippines; and the Rev. John Gibbons, ambassador to the Unitarian Church of Transylvania.

Approaching the end of his eight-year term as UUA president, Sinkford reflected on his goals for the Association’s international policy. “I wanted to make our international work more meaningful to our congregations,” he said, “and to also bring some regularity and predictability that I had observed was really lacking.” He expressed special pride in what his work will mean for the future. “One of the things that is most satisfying is knowing that there’s a continuity in place,” he said, “that the next UUA president won’t be starting from scratch.”

see below for links to related resources. Sinkford also discussed changes in the UUA’s international relationships in an interview in the Summer 2009 issue of UU World.

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