I have received more feedback on Independent Affiliates (IAs) than any other postings I have done - mostly from people active in (former) IAs. As a Board member elected to the Board after the new, more restrictive definition for IAs was put into practice, it is easy with 20/20 hindsight to say I might not have implemented the changes quite the way they were done (or not), and avoided what I perceive as unintended consequences (or not): valuable organizations who felt demeaned and dismissed by the change in relationship with the UUA Board. The decision to sunset the current IA status and replace it with one that appropriately recognizes and values these organizations is an attempt by the Board to fix this concern. So I am not quite sure I understand the outrage in several of the comments to my last AI post that we would do this. Enlighten me?
I do believe that changing the IA definition was necessary, and that a lot of work went into making it a smoother transition than it ultimately was -- and that the IAs themselves are partly responsible for the trainwreck. Read on.
The following is a fairly detailed history of the issue written by Chief Governance Officer (also known as Moderator, Board chair, and Mom) Gini Courter in response to an email she received on the issue - I have Gini's permission to post it here (with apologies, Gini, for the "Mom"). It is worth the read -- all the way through -- for anyone concerned about this issue:
At the time of consolidation, there was an assumption/hope that other liberal religious groups might wish to affiliate with Unitarian Universalism. That’s why they were called Independent Affiliates. In nearly a half century, that hasn’t happened. Sometimes we dream big, and I love us for it.
Fast forward 40 years from consolidation. No other religious groups have sought Independent Affiliate (IA) relationships, and the Board is happily using the IA designation as a sort of Good Housekeeping Seal for groups inside UUism. Staff and committees are relying on a group’s IA status to confer other benefits: reduced rates for advertising in the UU World and vendor space in the GA exhibit hall; the ability to participate in the UUA health plan; workshop spaces at GA; a listing in the UUA directory and on uua.org, and so on. When the board finally began examining the role of Independent Affiliates in 2002, there were about 90 Independent Affiliates. The affiliates were allocated over 60% of the workshop slots at General Assembly (GA). Congregations were allocated 0% of the workshops. In the meantime…the proliferation of affiliates had resulted in an annual meeting of congregations that was much more expensive, and where congregations and their needs had been completely displaced. At GA, The “little churches” of James Luther Adams’ ecclesiola in ecclesia weren’t churches at all. We didn’t have any space for our congregations because the Board, staff, and committees were covenanting (loosely, for sure, perhaps “contracting” would be a more appropriate term) instead with non-congregational entities.
You might wonder: Why we didn’t simply keep the IAs as they were and work separately on providing space for congregations at GA? The GA Planning Committee earnestly tried a couple of alternatives, but they didn’t work. In 2008 and 2009 they quit trying for other reasons discussed in a few paragraphs.
General Assembly was not the only venue where the displacement of congregations by IAs was taking place – it was only the easiest to see. For example, the UUA staff chose to provide expertise and resources to some affiliates (as well as discounts for advertising in the UU World, etc). At the congregational level, affinity groups parleyed the national relationships into congregational affiliation, and congregational boards were sometimes hard pressed to turn down requests from groups if the UUA Board had recognized the national organization as an Independent Affiliate. Often the relationships between “local” affiliates and the congregation’s board precisely mirrored the relationship between the IA and the UUA Board – an almost non-existent relationship with little or no accountability from either party.
Now, jump halfway back in time. The Board’s decision in the 70s? 80s? -- whenever it happened – to repurpose Independent Affiliates from a finite number (zero is pretty finite) of external partners to what would become a sizeable number of internal partners without providing criteria had created the problem. The Board began addressing this issue in earnest in 2002. Every affiliate organization was surveyed by trustees from one working group. The working group had one-on-one phone conversations with the leaders of over 80% of the IAs. Hearings to help the board understand what the leaders of IAs wanted from their relationship with the UUA were held at the GAs in Long Beach and Fort Worth. From 2002 to 2006 the board reclassified about two dozen affiliates. For example, Starr King and Meadville were asked to quit sending applications: “you’re not affiliates, you’re UU seminaries”. Same with the DPA, LREDA, and others. The criteria for Independent Affiliates was communicated to all the IAs in 2006 and implemented in April 2007. By April 2007, every Independent Affiliate had received a letter each year explaining the Board’s process and intent; a survey; invitations to participate in two hearings, two workshops, and direct conversation with the board members facilitating this process.
At the 2007 General Assembly, I invited leaders of then-current and former affiliates to meetings to try to help them imagine what they could/might do next because I knew there was lots of frustration about the changes. The UUA trustees who had been most closely involved with implementing the new criteria wished me luck and said I shouldn’t expect too much from these meetings. I’m an optimist, but they were right to be skeptical of the results of my efforts. I was verbally abused and treated in other totally inappropriate ways by leaders of some of our former independent affiliates. I also learned a lot, and have continued to work with some of these leaders to figure out how the Board and the Association staff can support their efforts. I was able to direct some of the former IAs to the relationships that would actually meet their needs and enable them to ask the right questions. For example, an IA that is primarily a funding panel should be in relationship with other funders and the staff that support them. When they’re participating in the right relationship, they can ask the right questions such as: why should our group pay for ads to give money away to UUs? I
t’s all about relationship. I’m glad I had these meetings at GA in Portland, because I know with absolute clarity that there is no confusion about what the Board was trying to do among IA leaders who were part of the process from the beginning. There is denial, but no confusion. There is a sense of entitlement, but no confusion. Some newly-elected leaders were confused because their predecessors told them nothing about the process, but I routinely hear that a specific leader of a former IA “doesn’t understand” what the board was attempting to do when I know that to be untrue.
[In your email], you ask a great question, and it’s the same question that I asked at the meetings at the 2007 GA. Here’s the question: So when have we told our Affiliates, if they seem to us merely self-serving, how they should better serve the Association as a whole? What have we told them, other than "go away"?
A mission of the UUA should be precisely to enable our independent groups to be more effective in projecting their concerns into the congregations. It’s not appropriate for the UUA Board to try to maintain relationships with 80+ affiliates, particularly since many of the IAs aren’t really interested in relationships with the Board. It’s not an appropriate use of UUA staff to have them use the funds provided by congregations to resource 80+ affiliates. Each affiliate doesn’t appear to be asking for much, but taken in the aggregate, it’s overwhelming. In the meetings at the 2007 GA I asked – to be honest, I begged – some groups of affiliates to organize themselves so that we could better support them. For example, the large number of single-issue social justice affiliates masks the fact that we don’t adequately support social justice ministry. If there were a council of social justice affiliates defining common interests, we could begin to address the common functions of a social justice ministry such as promotion and training. Such a council also meets the criteria that the UUA Board established for IAs. Such a council begins to be an interesting partner, not just for the UUA, but for other groups like the UUSC. The possibilities are amazing and limitless and worthy, but leaders of most of our former IAs chose to spend their 90 minutes with me and, more importantly, each other, explaining how they have nothing in common with any other group of Unitarian Universalists. It’s a failure of imagination that’s tragic.
The GA Planning Committee has dreamed aloud of a kind of conference of religious traditions day at GA: imagine a GA Saturday where every workshop is a worship service or spiritual practice group. The Planning Committee doesn’t have the bandwidth to do this with a dozen IAs. It’s not just providing the space, it’s building the relationships between the Planning Committee and the groups, and between the groups. Imagine brochures in every congregation outlining “spiritual paths in UUism” or “celebrating our sources”. At the 2007 GA meeting the leader of one former IA laid out this vision to the other groups, and was almost shouted down. The discussion returned to the comfortable topic of the bone-headedness of the UUA Board, and her idea curled up and died on the floor while I watched. It’s a failure of imagination that’s staggering.
At GAs 2008 and 2009, the rubber is really meeting the road. If the UUA Board had done nothing about IAs, there would still have been many IAs without workshops at GA 2008. The Ft. Lauderdale convention center did not have enough rooms to accommodate the many IA workshops. Here is the trend throughout the industry; convention centers are being built or renovated for a different conference style – small breakout rooms are being replaced with larger meeting rooms. Salt Lake City has more rooms than Ft. Lauderdale, but in 2009 the GA Planning Committee is moving UU University into GA programming space.
In the fall of 2003, we surveyed congregational presidents to find out what they needed from the Association that would make the greatest difference to their leadership. Over 80% responded that leadership development for lay leaders was the place where they most struggled. UU University was designed to respond to this need. The hundreds of leaders who attended UU University in 2006, 2007, and 2008 had to come to GA early and pay extra. In 2009, the programming that our congregational leaders have requested is finally part of their General Assembly. It’s taken five years, but we are making General Assembly the meeting that the elected leaders of our member congregations tell us they need. With the 2009 GA, the choice is very clear: we can provide the programming that our congregational leaders tell us they attend, or the programming that former independent affiliates want to provide.
I don’t just support the UUA board’s choice. I celebrate it, and I’m grateful that the Board tackled this as a governance issue rather than simply waiting until the IAs were squeezed out by space considerations, because it’s really about the relationships, not the space. Thanks for your questions and concerns, [name removed]. I’m grateful for the opportunity to lay this all out. I’ve copied your trustee (since you mentioned that you spoke with her) and I’ll be sharing my reply with some other folks who are thinking about and working on this issue. The Board just approved a new independent affiliate, and some board members are working with other former IAs on their journeys. I hold out hope that the social justice groups, in particular, will organize. There is so much opportunity not just for the IAs, but for our congregations. I remain optimistic that with continued work and care, we’ll arrive at a better place as an Association.
In faith and hope, Gini Courter, Moderator/Chief Governance Officer Unitarian Universalist Association
Amen. Though I am empathetic and apologetic to all IA members who felt devalued by this process, I too think it is time for imagination rather than pining for what was not working -- and is gone.