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


Anonymous said...

In San Francisco, GA delegates are generally not in other leadership positions and are often not aware of parish budgeting, staffing, or program issues which affect compliance with GA resolutions. We even reinforce the relative specialization of our delegates by mandating that they organize our Denominational Affairs committee. Going to assemblies and intra-denomination communicators becomes the focus of our delegates’ church effort.

This means that our delegates are rarely on our Board of Trustees or active in other key areas of our community.

I don’t think we’re alone in selecting (or self-selecting) delegates who are not part of their home governance structure.

This type of delegate mix leads to the national GA to regularly upping “Fair Share” targets and signing up for noble-sounding programs and efforts which are not embraced by leaders in the parishes and may not be practical.

As for empowering delegates to vote for the congregation on specific issues, that sounds fine. However, the method of collecting congregational input has to be better than the parish poll on social justice issues. From what I remember of the parish poll I participated in, the “poll” neglects the option of saying you’re opposed to the resolution. We were only allowed to prioritize our issues and not say that any were loony ideas.

Oh, ah,… great blog, Linda!

Anonymous said...

There's often a disconnect between what sounds good financially to GA delegates, and what congregational leaders want to budget.
There can also be a social or moral disconnect. The Youth Empowerment resolution strikes me as more the latter. Sounds like an overwhelming vote to bell the cat - but how many actually plan to take the emotional risk of saying hello to a teenager at social hour? Possibly a teenager less social and mature than the ones who rise to leadership roles at GA?
- Riley McLaughlin