UUA: Actions of Immediate Witness Albatross

The 50th General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association is now over. It was by and large a successful event with a tad bit of anxiety towards the planning of next year’s historic Justice General Assembly in Phoenix coupled with the association’s move towards policy governance.  This anxiety was most evident and most felt in the plenary session where the assembly debated the possible ending of Actions of Immediate Witness.   According to the by-laws,  “A General Assembly Action of Immediate Witness is one concerned  with a significant action, event or development the timing or specificity of which makes it inappropriate to be addressed by a UUA Statement of Conscience pursuant to the Study/Action process.”

In order for the UUA to sponsor a Justice GA where we are not doing business as usual means limiting the number of items that we have in our plenary sessions. In what ever fashion Justice GA is to take shape, there needs to be increased time in order for our presence in Phoenix to accomplish the most good.  We cannot simply suspend by-laws but we can change our by-laws to enable and empower our association to use this meeting as an action of justice. So there were two possible proposals in which to do this.

The first proposal proposed by the board would have eliminated Actions of Immediate Witness (AIW) altogether.  There were many reasons for advocating this possible outcome.  AIWs are no longer immediate.  A statement is made, debated sometimes with intense emotions hurled at opposing views. There is the false expectation that delegates will take these AIWs home to their congregations and implement them.   The statement is passed, the assembly present cheers, and the statement is promptly forgotten in the archives of the particular general assembly.

The strongest reason for this proposal was never stated at the assembly.  A question arose as to what impact would eliminating AIWs have on staff’s actions in social witness ministries.   The response was that AIWs have to date been a means to authorize staff to act on certain actions, for example, the staff did not feel authorized to speak up on stem cell research until there was an AIW presented. If an AIW on stem cell research never surfaced that year or any year for that matter, the UUA staff would allegedly not address the issue as part of their actions in Washington. It was a weak response.

The UUA board is in the process of transitioning into a policy governance board with a series of end statements that are developed through the board’s linkages with the congregations.  It is the ends that are to  drive the actions of the staff and not the whimsical fancy of any given assembly’s AIWs, regardless of how sincere those fancies may be.

The board was correct in its recommendation to eliminate the AIWs.  The staff’s response was only correct in that this was the pre-policy governance method of actions. The staff, once policy governance is fully operational, would have greater flexibility to act on justice issues than the current AIW actions of a program based board.  The Ends are what authorizes the staff to act for justice.  Specifically it is this end:

“Congregations that move toward sustainability, wholeness and reconciliation.

  1. Our congregations answer the call to ministry and justice work:
    1. Grounded in the communities in which they live
    2. Nationally and internationally
    3. With interfaith partners and alliances
  2. The public engages in meaningful dialogue and takes action informed by our prophetic voice and public witness.”

The question that Peter Morales as President and CEO of the UUA and his administration need to be asking is: Does the area of  concern further or hinder these ends?  And as an accountability measure: Are there congregations already pursuing this particular area of justice?

In regards to stem cell research, the example given at the assembly, the staff felt unable to respond nationally until the  AIW was passed in 2004. However, a quick Google search reveals that congregations were engaged in this subject at least as far back as 2001.  So if the UUA was a policy governance board back in 2001, the staff pursuing the ends as stated could have been engaged in this topic at least three years earlier instead of waiting for an AIW to come along.

Why should we hold our UUA staff back from pursuing the advocacy work necessary by making them wait for the possibility, the mere random chance of an AIW?

This Assembly showed the growing pains of an organization transitioning into policy governance.  Delegates and apparently UUA staff are still not fully informed as to what policy governance means for their association. There still remains an ignorance in how policy governance can and will create a more responsive UUA. There is further need to educate that AIWs are increasingly an ineffective mode of doing justice in these current harsh and repressive legislative times.

UUA staff cannot and should not have to wait a full year before a mere possibility that someone will introduce an AIW.  And when that AIW is not introduced, the staff should not feel that they are held hostage to the General Assembly in-actions in order to live out our faith in the national and international arena.    Staff do not need an AIW to empower their justice actions on the ground, the Ends statements provide that empowerment for them.

This proposal while it received a majority vote failed to receive the necessary 2/3rds majority in order to pass this assembly.

The second proposal was a compromise proposal from the Commission on Social Witness. It eliminated AIWs for one year, 2012,  and then reinstated a maximum of three AIWs beginning in 2013.  While this proposal allows the freedom for Justice GA to be a very different kind of General Assembly, it will hinder  the UUA board in functioning fully in their role  as a policy governance board for two more years, perhaps longer.  This is because AIWs are seen by Delegates and the staff as driving their justice actions instead of the Ends Statements. This is the proposal that passed.

However, the elimination or at the very least a reconfiguration of the AIWs function needs to occur.   Change is sometimes hard to swallow but in order for our national board and UUA staff to be as responsive as possible in these times, this change of eliminating AIWs is vital to our movement.



  1. Something on my end that I didnt have the time to talk about – what’s been our most effective social justice campaign anytime recently? Standing on the Side of Love. And which AIWs granted them the authority to exist?

  2. But the idea of eliminating AIWs was rejected through an open and democratic process. Maybe our congregational representatives don’t want the pure form of policy governance that you’re advocating?

    Perhaps, but the vote was in the majority to eliminate AIWs, but simply not a super majority as required. I would surmise that such a vote indicates that AIWs days are numbered. But it was also determined by our Moderator that most delegates’ congregations did not even discuss these proposals when they were sent out as tentative agendas. Which implies that the delegates time and focus on this issue was at best done alone without input from the congregations and at worst, with no clear understanding of how policy governance empowers the national body to act on our behalf. The questions raised in the plenary unfortunately seem to suggest the latter. Actions of Immediate Witness will need to undergo a revision in how they are developed and how they are to function in order for them to continue to be useful to the UUA and more importantly useful to our congregations.

  3. Yes … the vote was a simple majority. But significant portions of the UUA bylaws are designed to encourage incremental change (e.g. 2/3rd votes required for some GA votes, multiple years required for some GA votes, etc).

    So … we get incremental change. The number of AIWs in 2013 has been reduced from 6 to 3. Maybe some day the number will be reduced from 3 to 0? Or maybe some other incremental change will happen that improves congregational participation in the AIW process.

    It’s entirely possible that most congregations are OK with the AIW process as it exists today and all it needs is minor reforms like the ones we saw this year.

  4. Matt asked:
    Standing on the Side of Love. And which AIWs granted them the authority to exist?

    The marriage equality portion of the “Standing” campaign is grounded in the following resolution:

    Support of the Right to Marry for Same-Sex Couples (1996 Resolution of Immediate of Witness – an earlier version of the current AIWs)

    That resolution is the justification that the UUA staff has used for supporting marriage equality in general terms not related to specific conditions.

    There are two other AIWs that support marriage equality — one that speaks about the Federal Marriage constitutional amendment (2004) and one that speaks about the California and Florida voter referenda on marriage equality (2008).

    There are also resolutions that deal with immigration justice issues as well. It’s not like the UUA staff goes “rogue” and comes up with social justice stuff without grounding in some sort of GA resolution vote.

    Resolutions regarding the civil rights of sexual minorities go back even further to 1970 and resolutions regarding immigration goes back even further to 1961 so the Standing on the Side of Love campaign is well integrated in how we as Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations view these two issues. Which in a program style governance board, these resolutions are essential in order for staff to act.

    I want to respond to the UUA staff going “rogue” comment in regards to this post. Eliminating AIWs as they exist now because it does not fit policy governance ends does not mean that UUA staff would be granted freedom to go rogue in their social justice work for the denomination. Staff would still be accountable to the limitations set by the board. Staff would still be accountable to the board for the areas of justice that they pursue. And the board of trustees is still accountable to the congregations from which the ends statements are derived. But there is greater freedom and responsiveness to perform immediate actions of witness when the staff are allowed to assist in fulfilling the ends of the board than waiting for the chance arrival of a once a year assembly resolution on any particular topic.

  5. I know just how to get rid of AIWs Fred.

    Just create a few AIWs that target the UUA itself. . .

    Like an AIW that demands that the MFC rules must provide an avenue of appeal for clergy misconduct complainants whose clergy misconduct complaints are not satisfactorily handled by the UUA’s all too aptly named Ministerial *Fellowship* Committee. . .

    I hereby take note of the fact that two UUA GA’s have passed since I pointed out this serious flaw in the MFC rules (to say nothing of one or two other major flaws) yet the UUA and MFC have refused to responsibly correct this problem which is clearly out of alignment with the principle of justice, equity and compassion in human relations.

    Draw up a few AIWs of *that* nature and the UUA will do everything it can to get rid of AIWs. . .

    This would be a cynical approach to be sure. The new UU Minister’s Association (UUMA) draft code of professional guidelines do address these areas of concern.

  6. How has “Standing on the Side of Love” actually BEEN successful other than to get us some nice press coverage a couple of times?

    Just because we were advocating something that is slowly happening doesn’t mean we had anything to do with causing it. Going with Steve’s 1996 date, it is something that the UUA has been authorized to act on for fifteen years. What exactly have we done for stem cell research since 2004?

    IMHO, we should stop passing resolutions and start helping people. Every time UUs get together and feed the hungry, we’re making the world better for someone. Every time UUs get together and rally and complain and express our longwinded opinions…what comes of it?

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