Monday, February 2, 2009

Independent Affiliates Revisited (Again) (And Again)

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, 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?

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.


Steve Caldwell said...


Personally, I think the issue of meeting room breakout space at GA for every Independent Affiliate (IA) is a "red herring" issue.

Instead of eliminating the "official recognition" of every IA, there are other options that could have been used to reduce the number of breakout rooms at GA.

One suggestion that comes to mind is assigning a percentage of IA workshop slots by lottery. This would mean that an IA is not guaranteed a workshop slot in any given year. The rest of the workshop slots would be assigned by the GA Planning Committee by "merit" instead of "lottery."

This would be a just and fair way of allocating scarce resources.

Finally, I've attended non-UU conferences for my day job in Las Vegas and Orlando (personally, I prefer Las Vegas to the Orlando Disney resorts - Las Vegas is more "authentic" in being inauthentic when compared to the Disney resorts).

At both conference sites, they had space for plenary sessions for 5000 people and small room breakout space for plenty of individual workshops of varying sizes as well.

A friend of mine who is a SKSM seminary student said that he was disappointed with the IA decision because it appeared to him that the UUA Board made the decision because they couldn't tell the UU Polyamory Awareness group "no."

Given the vacuum of information (the UUA Board minutes are a minimal record and we never have a record of the private conversations where many organizations decisions are made), the perception is that the stated reasons for eliminating IA's and the actual reasons are not the same.

I'm not trying to be insulting here to you, Gini Courtier, or the UUA Board -- but I think the IA decisions are examples of openness and transparency in governance breaking down.

Mike McGirr said...

Amen, Gini and Linda. This is so much a mirror of the challenge and process within our own congregation! The proliferation of "committees" and "participating organizations" has created a sense of high activity that requires significant staff time and other resources, without much accountability and often little focus on our core congregational vision. Our board has been going through somewhat the same type of evaluation and re-connecting or letting go process over the past few years. This has led to some serious compromises to our modified form of Policy Governance in an effort to build or repair relationships with those groups, since we don't have the staff to handle it.

We have the same issue of inadequate support of social justice ministries because of a large number of single-issue groups and individuals who seem unable to come together in common purpose. We are also working to develop and support lay leadership which was identified as a primary concern of our board, committees and groups. In our congregation I often see the same denial, entitlement posture and failure of imagination that Gini mentioned, as well as a lack of trust in leadership like what I hear in criticisms of the UUA Board. But I also see progress and feel tremendous gratefulness for the passionate dedication of many gifted and generous people.

Gini Courter said...

Steve - The two convention centers you name -- Orlando and Las Vegas -- are competing to be the largest in North America. The last time I checked Vegas, they could host 250,000 attendees (like Comdex).

These two centers have plenty of everything -- small breakouts, large breakouts, etc -- and our GA is not big enough to book either of them. At the other end there are convention centers too small to hold GA currently. But in between, you'll find that what I posted is accurate.

The UUA Board doesn't assign GA workshop slots. The GA Planning Committee does (as you note). They have a system for providing workshop slots to affiliates and others who apply based on merit. You note that awarding some based on a lottery would be fair and just, but it's designed to provide equity between affiliates. As regards GA, the Board is primarily interested in achieving equity and justice for congregations. According to the bylaws, it's their meeting.

The Board minutes are sparse, but you'll find lots of information in the Board notes which are written by an independent observer to the meetings. Which brings me to transparency....

I disagree with you about the transparency and openness of this process. As you might imagine, the Board has recieved many, many suggestions about what process the board should have used. Almost always, the suggestion is something that was, in fact, part of the process: surveys of affiliates, letters in every affiliate renewal packet, GA workshops, reports in plenary, phone calls or letters with leaders of affiliates, all were part of the four year process.

Your assumption about how your Board functions is incorrect. The UUA Board holds its discussions in open session, and we always have observers. Working groups and committees are open as well, and almost all of them always have observers -- district presidents and folks from UUWF, UUSC, UU/UNO and CUUYAN are frequent observers, but there are always 5-15 other folks who just join us for all or part of the meeting.

You may not like this particular board decision, but please don't fault the Board on transparency or openness, two aspects of governance they work very hard to get right.

Steve Caldwell said...

Gini Courtier wrote
"The two convention centers you name -- Orlando and Las Vegas -- are competing to be the largest in North America. The last time I checked Vegas, they could host 250,000 attendees (like Comdex).

These two centers have plenty of everything -- small breakouts, large breakouts, etc -- and our GA is not big enough to book either of them. At the other end there are convention centers too small to hold GA currently. But in between, you'll find that what I posted is accurate."


The computer-related trade show convention that I attended this past November in Las Vegas was around 5000 attendees (which is close to the size of GA).

The plenary sessions were in one of the large rooms at Bally's

The breakout sessions were in the Flamingo (which has tons of rooms in various sizes for breakout sessions). One of the Flamingo ballrooms was the trade show booth area.

I bet there are other venues in Las Vegas that would work for us.

The Orlando conference site that I visited for a computer trade show and conference was not the convention center in Orlando - it was the Coronado Springs Resort (a Disney property).

Personally, I preferred the Las Vegas site because Disney is more "inauthentic" in its inauthenticity when compared to Las Vegas.

I know it must be frustrating for you and other members of the UUA Board but the perceptions about the lack of openness and transparency really do exist.

I'm not making these perceptions up - these ideas are floating around in UU conversations both online and offline about this board decision.

This may seem unfair - much the same way it was unfair for VP Gore when folks made fun of him for saying that he "inventing the internet" or Gov. Palin when folks made fun of her for saying "I can see Russia from my house."

Neither of these statements are true about Gore or Palin but they resonated much better than the truth with the public.

The UUA Board business may really be as open and transparent as you're describing. But the perception out there is quite different.

This can be a serious PR problem for the UUA Board and I don't think it's been solved yet.

Good luck.

Barbara Ford said...

Hi Gini et al. I was directed to the blog by a fellow member of the board of UU Ministry for Earth, one of the remaining affiliates who went through the process that Gini described. I agree that it was unnecessarily contentious, and while we might have not understood all the underlying issues that the board was dealing with over time, the MFE board did decide to try to reframe the conversation for ourselves from "How should the UUA serve us as an affiliate?" to "How shall we as an affiliate serve the UUA, and thus, the faith?".

We were one of the organizations asked to serve as an "umbrella" organization for other social justice groups, because we were perceived as a strong organization with a focus on broad congregation-based grassroots organizing. The Green Sanctuary program was honored as the kind of actions all groups could strive for, and we are proud of the program, as well as the decision to give it to the UUA in support of UU earth ministry, rather that UU Ministry for Earth.

The issue I'd like to address is one that Gini cites as resistance to the idea of groups coming together for a common purpose. For us, at least, it wasn't just about turf. It's a great idea, and one that we might have considered, IF THERE WAS FUNDING FOR STAFF OR PROGRAMMING for such an endeavor. These are all volunteer led organizations, and the hours, creativity, and energy it takes to work in one area, let alone managing an umbrella organization, has kept many of us in half to full-time unpaid jobs for years. I don't say this with any sense of martyrdom. I have experienced this work as deeply resonant with my spiritual journey. However, the reality is that organizing on the scale suggested by Gini would take an effort that far surpasses the capacity of volunteers, particularly on a national level.

I am grateful for the work of the board and staff of the UUA for trying to iron out the institutional challenges of this faith. Particularly, I lift up my gratitude to Gini for her patience and clarity in the face of a lot of anxiety and hostility. People go to some less than perfect places of reactivity when they perceive that their issues of concern are being disrespected, and, yes, there is some ego involvement that can go along with it. This, for me, lifts up the need for ministry to those who are fearful for the future, and who are desperately trying to act on behalf of justice, however imperfectly. We all need solid spiritual grounding in order to stay present in healthy ways.

I offer these remarks as solely my own, and not representing the opinion of UU Ministry
for Earth or it's board.

Barbara Ford
Board Chair, UU Ministry for Earth

Anonymous said...

Nothing I've heard from board members sounds like the truth. This long letter shows the arrogance of the board. Rather than listening, which they're supposed to do, they keep giving many reasons why they are right and we are wrong. They think that they are the sole arbitrator of what's good for congregations. In all these surveys, did they ask leaders if they wanted to kill Independent Affiliates? Did they ask if these leaders wanted the board to kill their favorite affiliates? Does their congregation know that they caused this debacle? My church only gives us the option of voting yes or no for our leaders so do they truly represent us and is this truly democratic? This blog posting and letter demonizes Independent Affiliates and puts the blame on them.

Independent Affiliates help the congregations and their members. Congregations have trouble doing many things and the Independent Affiliates help by being a resource. Forcing everyone into umbrella groups gives us the same problems we get in our congregations, everything is watered down. Social Justice groups are being asked to cut down or not do certain things so that church leaders or staff can force the whole church to do what they want because of this attitude that there can only be one arbiter for what's good for the congregation--we can only have one voice so "we don't have to think alike to love alike is no longer valid". We want the affiliates to be watered down so no one can get help in going deep in their faith tradition. If you are Christian you must keep it to yourself and feel alone. And no faith tradition can be accurately represented.

The board keeps saying that they care about congregations. Yet one board member says they don't care about what is decided about the CSAI. Yet you and Gini say that the board never talks to anyone let alone themselves in private and that everyone feels free to report on what board members say. Yet I have faced serious repercussions for repeating what I thought our church leaders said. I would have thought as public figures they would welcome the chance to make sure they could set the record straight instead of forcing people to consider these things in secret.

I'm sorry church leaders don't see themselves as public figures and their getting their feelings hurt.

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