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.

UUA End Statement raises concern

At Mid-South District’s Annual Assembly in Nashville this past weekend, our UUA Trustee Lyn Conley shared with those present at the meeting the proposed UUA end statement and it caused some concern for me and several of my ministerial colleagues who were present. 

The end statement that was originally presented to the UUA Board  meeting in April 2009 stated the following: “Grounded in our covenantal tradition, the UUA will inspire people to lead lives of humility and purpose, connection and service, thereby transforming themselves and the world.” 

By the end of the Board meeting, the proposed end statement that passed and that Lyn Conley read to the District was the following: 

“Grounded in our covenantal tradition, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association will inspire people to lead lives of humility and purpose, connection and service, thereby transforming themselves and the world.”

There is a vast difference between stating “The Unitarian Universalist Association will inspire people to”… versus “The member congregations of the UUA will inspire people to… ”    

The first wording is an appropriate end statement for the Unitarian Universalist Association, the second is not.  Perhaps it is a subtle difference.  But in my experience of doing policy governance work, I do not believe so. 

Policy Governance is a model for how a board works in achieving its ends as a board and as an entity.  It is a helpful tool in guiding CEOs in fulfilling the mission of the agency. The UUA is an agency set up to serve the member congregations.

The second statement is a directive to the member congregations and the subset ends that follow contain possible criteria for enforcing that directive. If we had a presbyterian form of polity then the directive would also be appropriate but we do not have a presbyterian polity, not yet anyway, and therefore in order for the second wording to succeed it would require that each and every congregation in the association to buy into / or covenant with this end statement as their own in order for it to be implemented and aspired to by the congregations. 

The difficulty with this as an end statement for the UUA is that it is really an end statement for congregations that are supposed to be able to determine their own destiny through congregational polity. It is instead akin to parents developing an end statement for their child’s future: ‘Grounded in our family values, Mary child of Tom and Wilbur will major in medicine to become a doctor.’  While the goal of the end statement is laudable and perhaps very desirable by many congregations, to state that “member congregations … will inspire” is not within the UUA’s decision or even within their perview to decide. That decision of whether the congregation will inspire rests in the congregation.

The original wording is the UUA’s end statement. The revised and adopted end statement is the member congregations’ end statement, which is not in the UUA’s authority to develop. 

How will the UUA inspire congregations to be places of transformation?  What will the UUA do to assist that to happen?  All appropriate questions that the UUA will need to discuss and develop policies and parameters for the next President to then follow in fully answering these questions. As currently worded, however, the UUA is saying that the congregations will do this and that is not in the UUA’s control and once it is out of the UUA’s control it can no longer be the UUA’s end statement.  Nor is it in the parent’s control on how their child will decide to unfold her life. 

I do not question the laudable vision of inspiring people to living lives of humility and purpose, etc…. But I do question who will take responsibility and accountability for it happening… Placing it on the member congregations is the UUA abdicating its role in serving the congregations.  And while the UUA ‘s membership is made up of congregations, it is still an entity separate from the member congregations.  End statements are for the board of an agency to implement through its staff and not its member constituents.

Let me see if I can put this another way… I was the executive director of an AIDS Ministry for over 10 years.  My board developed end statements for me to work towards.  It was not the responsibility of the people with AIDS  who we served to implement these end statements, it was my responsibility and the staff I supervised to implement these end statements.  Hopefully by working towards these end statements it meant that the people with AIDS were living healthier lives because of them.   

It is the same with whatever end statement that the UUA Board develops.  It is the President and the staff of the UUA who will and ought to be responsible for working towards these end statements.  Hopefully, by working towards these end statements the member congregations will indeed be places where transformations happen.   The UUA can inspire us to be these places of transformation with their resources, their services to the congregations, their advocacy work for justice in our nation’s capital and in their holding the member congregations accountable to our covenant with one another.   Blessings,