Thursday, July 31, 2008

Covenanting with Knoxville

Last Sunday morning, during a service that included a performance of "Annie, Jr." at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church (TVUUC), a shooter opened fire at the front row of the people in the Sanctuary watching the performance, killing two and severely wounding 6 more. For the past four days hundreds of UU congregations across the United States (as well as other churches) have mourned with the families in Knoxville, holding vigils and special services, aware that we too could be targets because of our "liberal beliefs".

UUA President Bill Sinkford was there by Sunday evening, along with two members of the UUA Trauma team and UUA staffers to help deal with the publicity that inevitably follows tragedy. Two former UUA presidents, John Buehrens and Robert West, had served TVUUC as ministers, but there is no doubt that any congregation going through such a painful experience would have the same kind of support.

A very moving service was held Monday night with members of many different faiths next door at the Second Presbyterian Church that had sheltered people the day before, ending with the cast of the play performing the well known "Tomorrow" at the end. I wept listening to the voices, many of them children, joined by the entire interfaith body on the second verse.

France's Le Monde newspaper declared "We Are All Americans" on September 12, 2001. This week we have all been members of the 4 Knoxville congregations that were together on July 27, and experienced this tragedy. We share your grief - and your hope for tomorrow.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Two strong candidates

We have two strong candidates for UUA president, with very different styles. I have met and talked with both. Laurel Hallman is generally perceived to be the more "managerial" of the two, which is meant as a compliment by those who have used the term, referring to her proven ability to run a large organization. She calls for finding more depth in our spiritual lives and has written a new book Reaching Deeper. Peter Morales can be a charismatic leader who calls overtly for change, and says "growing our faith is a moral imperative". He is a known for his "repelling fewer visitors" audio and presentations.

The grapevine has it that Laurel is supported by most of the senior church ministers, who generally serve our larger congregations, through her 26 years of relationships built in the course of parish ministry. This appears to be borne out by the long list of endorsements by well known ministers on her website, though Peter claims some as well. It is interesting that Peter's endorsements include some of our better known "rabble rousers", such as Mike Durall (author and consultant) and Davidson Loehr (senior minister at First UU Church of Austin).

There were three direct opportunities to observe these candidates side by side - two workshops and the candidate forum. I did not attend either workshop, though feedback was consistent that both candidates appeared subdued. That was also my reaction to the Forum, though you can watch the video to see for yourself - it is only at the end that Peter's characteristic energy shows up. Feedback from the Youth Caucus expressed concern about both = apparently Peter's perceived lack of enthusiasm about Youth and Laurel's comment about our Youth serving in our nurseries were not taken well.

At this point I am choosing not to endorse. I would hope each of us take into account what we see and observe first hand more so than the recommendations of others. You will no doubt have the opportunity in the next year to hear both - in the meantime, check out their very different approaches on their websites.

And if you have not done so already, read the following blog. UUA presidential elections are one of the few things that allow absentee ballots, so every congregation will have its "full measure" of delegate votes. If you have a preference for who becomes president, are you content to let your delegates "vote their conscience"? If not, what will you do between now and next summer to insure that delegates represent their congregations?

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

What does it mean to be a delegate?

A few months ago we were discussing "UU policy" within the Pacific Central District when the question came up as to whether or not there was such a thing - particularly in regard to congregational compliance. After all, went the reasoning, NO ONE tells a congregation what to do except its members. Isn't that what congregational polity means?

Well, partly. But it appears we may have forgotten the other part of the equation. The Cambridge Platform, considered one of our "founding documents" included not only the concept of autonomous congregations, but also the relationships among those congregations, based on inter-congregational covenants, also referred to in our case as the UUA Bylaws:

We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote.... (Article II, Section C-2.1)

So what does it mean to covenant with other congregations? This was the topic of a Commission on Appraisal Report in 1997, which concluded (among many other things)

Congregations need to take fuller responsibility for the governance of intercongregational bodies and their official meetings (especially the General Assembly).

Which brings me to the original question - what does it mean to be a delegate? Only delegates can vote at the business meetings of the General Assembly. Resolutions passed by these delegates were addressed (and limited) early on - in 1962, in fact, by a resolution that basically said general resolutions were binding on staff and the UUA Board, but not on the congregations that sent the delegates. Furthermore, implementation of Statements of Immediate Witness fall predominantly on the delegates who pass them.

Chief Governance Officer (Moderator) Gini Courter has another take (which I have her permission to share):
Delegate -
v. transfer power to someone
v. give an assignment to (a person) to a post, or assign a task to (a person)
n. a person appointed or elected to represent others

What part of "delegate" do some folks (not a majority, I assume) not understand? When we make Joe our delegate, we empower Joe to represent us. That's why we should choose Joe and not someone unreliable, and make sure Joe is someone who understands what the rest of us think. Then we send him off, grounded in that understanding, to do his very best to represent us. We trust. Maybe we even have faith. And when Joe votes, he's voting for us -- that's why we sent him. This isn't complex; it's high school civics.

Gini continued this same theme in Sunday's closing worship, where she quoted Section C4.2 of the By-Laws: "General Assemblies shall make overall policy for carrying out the purposes of the Association and shall direct and control its affairs," and went on to say that General Assembly is a crucial component of Unitarian Universalist polity - and our polity (quoting Conrad Wright) "goes to the very heart of our theology."

So if we, as congregations, take seriously our commitment to each other in "covenanting together", how would we view the role of the people who represent us at the major event in which we gather together and make decisions? Would it be whoever shows up? Would we expect them to represent themselves or their congregation? What is required to represent a congregation? What responsibility does a delegate then have to bring those decision home and make a good faith effort at implementing them?

When I think of "binding" I think of contracts, laws, and penalties for non-compliance. This clearly does not fit with GA resolutions. But when I think of "covenant" I think of freely offering our best intentions to "walk together", which is a moral obligation if not a "binding" one. I fear most of us have lost this part of the polity equation.

Next post: the (UUA) Presidential Election

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Youth Empowerment

THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED that the 2008 General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association urges the Unitarian Universalist Association, its congregations and district structures to:
1. Invite ministerial support to youth and young adults through inclusive worship, intentional presence, and
2. Invest financial support in youth and young adult leadership bodies and programs when viable; and
3, Provide support for youth and young adult staff and volunteers to receive suitable training and resources, including self-directed anti-racism and anti-oppression trainings; and
4. Attend to the needs of youth and young adult constituents with marginalized identities by providing resources and opportunities within the congregation and at the district and continental levels.

They stood 150 strong behind the pro mikes, cheering as the resolution was passed. These were our youth - learning about the democratic process by participating in it with a resolution created by their own. The history behind this resolution is covered in a previous post (see "Youth Ministry"), and there is also a good description at I also attended one of the FUN TIMES (Folks Unanimously Networking to Imagine, Manage, and Execute Sessions), that elected the next Board Youth Observer and General Assembly FUN TIMES co-manager. It was inspiring to see these young people deal with the issues of fairness, representative, and respect for each person who spoke and/or stood for election. Both young people elected, including Nick Allen who is the new Board Youth Observer, were thoughtful, bright and articulate and will represent Youth and UUism well.

How could anyone oppose this kind of youth resolution? Some did because they felt it did not go far enough, but what I found most interesting was the opposition by Denny Davidoff, a highly respected former moderator, who said "I fear this resolution will be asking this delegate body to make promises that many congregations cannot keep." This went to the heart of my next post: to what degree are decisions passed by delegates at General Assembly binding on the congregations that make up the Association?

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Ethical Eating

Why does food figure so prominently in many of the world's religions? To what degree does our choice of food encourage farming practices that wear out the soil and contribute to environmental degradation? How does the unavailability of healthy food contribute to poverty and ill health? What moral guidelines, if any, should govern food production?

I hope you hear a lot more about this topic over the next few years. Chosen as a Congregational Study/Action Issue, our congregations will be exploring this topic over the next few years, culminating in a written position in 2011. It combines concerns about social inequality and environmental destruction, and uses our Fifth Principle around the right of conscience and the democratic process to determine the stand we take as a faith on this issue.

Two study topics were put forth at this year's General Assembly, the other Nuclear Disarmament. Though Nuclear Disarmament is clearly an important issue fundamental to the survival of humankind, Ethical Eating won hands down - as well it should.

Why? Those of you who have heard me speak publicly know I am a Stephen Covey fan, particularly around his "Circle of Concern" (everything we are concerned about) and smaller concentric "Circle of Influence" (what we can impact directly). Rev. Marlin Lavanhar must also be a fan, as he used the concepts in his Sunday morning sermon, though he did not credit Covey. These two study topic choices are a great example of the difference between the two Circles. Nuclear disarmament fits my perception of what stereotypical UUs are capable of having: a wonderfully articulate discussion that will likely not have any impact on anything.

Which topic has the highest probability of transforming the life of the person who delves into it, as well as transform the community around them? How can our congregations work together to share "best practices" in how we address this? Does your congregation have someone who will help explore this?

Or might that person be you?

Next topic: Youth Empowerment

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Forrest Church and Learning to Fall

We have all suffered, and will suffer, our own falls. The fall from youthful ideals, the waning of physical strength, the failure of a cherished hope, the loss of our near and dear, the fall into injury or sickness, and late or soon, the fall to our certain ends. We have no choice but to fall, and little say as to the time or the means.

Perhaps, however, we do have some say in the manner of our falling.

These words, from Philip Simmons’ beautiful little book Learning to Fall: Blessings of an Imperfect Life (Bantam, 2003), have stuck with me from the first time I read them. Perhaps no better of example of someone choosing the manner of their falling is Forrest Church.

On February 23, 2008, the Rev. Dr. Forrest Church announced to his congregation that his cancer had returned – and was terminal. His receipt of the Distinguished Service Award at General Assembly on June 28 could not have been a better match for the public life he has lived. Creator of such memorable quotes as “The opposite of love is not hate, but fear” and “Religion is our human response to the dual reality of being alive and having to die”, Church served The Unitarian Church of All Souls In New York city for 30 years and has written at least 20 books. As Church accepted the award, we all knew he was dying. His strong spirit brought to mind Yeats’ words about the soul “fastened to a dying animal”.

One small thing stands out to me about the presentation of the award – Roger Thompson, trustee from the recently-merged Northeast District, was the Board member who presented it with President Bill Sinkford. Roger is a tall, roughhewn mountain man, with a full beard who is partial to flannel shirts and canvass pants. The Board has never seen him dressed up – but he wore a white suit and tie as a sign of deep respect for Rev. Dr. Church. When I commented on it, he said, “it never occurred to me to do anything else”.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Van Jones and Green Collar Jobs

I had never heard of Van Jones before I learned he was the Ware Lecturer for 2008, joining such greats as Jane Addams, Martin Luther King, Jr. , and Helen Caldicott - and now he appears to be everywhere. Founder of the Ella Baker Center in Oakland, Jones recently worked with Nancy Pelosi last year to pass the Green Jobs Act of 2007, which authorizes up to $125 million per year to train workers in "green collar" jobs.

Like another better known African American leader, Jones does not shy away from fixing accountability, but offers hope along with a call for responsibility: “Martin Luther King did not give a speech entitled “I have a complaint!” Rather than a call to protest, his message was that we are at a turning point, with a need now to govern. It is far easier, he says, to be against whoever is in power, rather than having the responsibility to use power wisely to make the changes we have been calling for. It seems he knew his audience well.

Articulate, smart, funny, and passionate about his values, Jones got a rousing, standing ovation. As he shook hands with some of the people in the area where I was sitting, Board member Lyn Conley pointed to our 150 strong young caucus and said “the youth are over there”. Watching him join that young, excited, cheering crowd I was ready to go home, head to his office in Oakland, and volunteer to work for him – along with several other thousand of us.

In her “20 Reasons to Come to GA”, Moderator Gini Coulter said “ten years from now, you will be glad you heard him here”. I think she is right – read a review of his speech and hear his lecture via streaming video by scrolling down to Saturday and clicking on the Ware Lecture.

And if the Colbert Report is more to your liking, see Jones explaining what "green collar jobs" are with a little heckling from his host.

Next post: Forrest Church and Learning to Fall

Thursday, July 3, 2008

"It was a good GA."

Though significantly smaller in numbers (just over 3000) than last year, nearly everyone I have talked with (including the entire UUA Board) said this was a good General Assembly. Though a financial “hit”, a smaller GA translated into less hassle, shorter lines, and more time to connect with other people, without sacrificing content. The music (mostly contemporary, featuring 4 different choirs and terrific accompaniment) was superb, helped by the GA Planning Committee’s decision to pay for the UU Musician’s Network members GA registration, allowing many of them to stay after their own meeting in Fort Lauderdale. There were many great moments, featuring people like Van Jones from our own Bay Area backyard, who bowled all of us over with his message of “green”, working with urban poor, and hope, or Good Asian Drivers, a Lesbian singer/songwriter and Transgendered slam poet duo with incredible power in lyrics and delivery who were part of the Bridging Ceremony on Friday night. There were few dry eyes as the Rev. Dr. Forrest Church received the Distinguished Service Award, or as the Rev. Marlin Lavanhar spoke of losing his daughter a few years ago – or several thousand UU voices sang “Blue Boat Home” [worth checking this just to see what is probably an unauthorized cell phone recording on YouTube in Japanese].

Look for these – and more – in postings over the next several weeks. And if you were there - what is YOUR opinion of this year's GA?

Photo taken in Fort Lauderdale courtesy of Tom Loughrey, UUA Trustee from the Pacific Southwest District, used by permission.