Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Let's eat a movie!

Those of you familiar with Spanish probably know the difference between "la cena" (dinner) and "el cine" (a movie), but in the heat of the moment it is easy to confuse them -- ask me how I know. It was probably not as big a gaffe as the time I went flying across a lurching train and landed spreadeagled on a very surprised man, blurting out "I am pregnant!".

Me talk pretty one day.

I just spent two week in the Yucatan (Mexico) at Solexico, a language school discovered by Gini Courter, who has arranged discounts for UUs who attend. It is worth the time -- I was only there a week, trying to regain some long lost fluency, though many go who start with nothing. I have no illusions that this will now allow me to function fully as a dual language social justice worker, but it does help create an underlying context and understanding of the issues we are moving into with the influx of Spanish-speaking people into the US, documented or not. Spanish is the fourth largest most commonly spoken language in the world, after English, Mandarin, and Hindi, and after English the most commonly spoken second language. Almost 40% of the people in California are of Hispanic or Latino/a origin. Though most of them speak "my" language, the cultural context of knowing more of "theirs" is invaluable.

The Solexico teachers were well primed by the UUs who came before us -- and clearly intrigued. It provided an interesting opportunity to explain who we were and what our faith was based on in another language. Located in Playa del Carmen (there are others in Oaxaca , Puerto Vallarta, and Guanajuato) the area is safe, easy to get to, and within minutes of world class beaches and eco-parks. Classes are small and pegged to your level in grammar or conversation. My class included Irvin Waller, a Canadian Unitarian from Ottawa who is a well known expert in prevention of violence, so the conversations were pretty interesting.

I realize not everyone is in a position to spend several weeks in a language camp, but most of us can take advantage of learning opportunities that are essentially free (there are many free podcasts on the web, for example). If you have ever thought about brushing up on, or starting your Spanish, do so.

Justice GA is only a beginning.

Next post: a few more January UUA Board items

Friday, February 10, 2012

Congregations and beyond

Ninth in a series of posts about the January UUA Board meeting

The blogsphere flurry about President Morales' Congregations and Beyond surprises me in that it is the extension of a conversation that started some time ago. A less restrictive definition of what a "congregation" is was passed by the delegates of GA2011. Peter brought an earlier version of this paper to the October board meeting, which dovetailed with a formal conversation the board was having about the scope of the Association. Even earlier, the "Sources" (what Policy Governance refers to as a "moral owner" of the association) included concepts beyond congregations, our traditional accountability. More recently, the Gathered Here initiative intentionally included people who identified as Unitarian Universalist, but were not necessarily a member of a congregation.

What a good CEO does is take something and make it real. As long as we stay high level and metaphorical, we can avoid the idea that certain sacred traditions may change, such as "worship is central to our church life", implicitly meaning together where we can see and touch each other each Sunday morning.

What does Peter mean when he talks about "a UU movement that is composed of a mix of congregations and a variety of
 other structures"? Our Young Adults have been wrestling with that for some time, even changing their name to CAYAN to reflect an expanded view of what it means to be UU.

I was not around when the Church of the Larger Fellowship, our largest congregation at 3600 members, was formed. I suspect that was viewed with apprehension. In the past ten years, it has provided 400 of the roughly 8300 membership growth in UUA congregations -- not trivial, but not exactly replacing our congregations. I do find it interesting, though, that the new CLF website effectively buries its connection to Unitarian Universalism: nothing on the welcome nor the "new here" pages, explaining it as "We're just opening our doors to seekers who might not understand what our name means or what Unitarian Universalism is."

Is this what Faith Formation 2020 means by a "third place" -- that non-religious/non-secular space for those who are "spiritual but not religious"?

It's a great conversation -- join it.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Being accountable

Ninth in a series of posts about the January UUA Board meeting

A basic tenet of our governance is that if the board does not speak with one voice, the board has not spoken. "One voice" is not consensus, but rather relies on our democratic principle: we vote.

And so we voted to send the President's Ends Monitoring Report back to the staff for additional work. Those of us who had seen all three iterations agreed this was the best attempt yet: there was were clear operational definitions and defined means of measurement. Essentially the staff said progress toward the UUA goals would be measured annually by the change in how a sample of Unitarian Universalists perceived we were doing. "People develop a personal spiritual practice" would be measured by asking the sample if they had one (on a scale of 1 to 5, 5 being highest, 56% were a 4 or 5), or "Our congregations are open and inclusive in their outreach and welcome" by asking the sample if they thought their congregations were (2/3 labeled it a 5). The President/staff found itself in "non-compliance" because this established a single data point for each end/goal, rather than showing progress over time.

Despite obvious problems with the sample*, I found the data fascinating. Should we rejoice, for example, that less than 2% of UUs find their congregations NOT welcoming (a 1 or 2), or are we asking the wrong people? How about 2/3 giving their congregations high marks (4 or 5) for being "intentionally multi-generational"? It substantiated things many of us know: about a third have a "strong relationship" with other congregations (4 or 5), a third really engage (4 or 5) with issues of oppression and privilege, and a third have "high expectations of their members" (4 or 5).

It was not enough for most board members. We are looking for a way to say definitively to our congregations "here is proof of the difference being made by the Association". These kinds of high-level surveys are not meant to give definitive answers, but rather indicate where further analysis is needed, particularly over time. Is this monitoring report significant progress towards being able to do that, or the third year of something we are unable to take back confidently? Is the staff really using the ends to generate strategies going forward, or force-fitting the campaign platform into enough of them to attempt to satisfy the board?

Who sets the vision?

I think members of the staff are genuinely trying to shift to the new paradigm and are having genuine difficulty doing so, not because they are unwilling or incapable, but because what we are attempting to do something that has never been done before. The shift showed up big time in some of the limitations policies reviewed by the board -- they were superb, and sailed through on the consent agenda. They addressed, not "here is what we did" so that board members used their own experience on whether or not that was enough, but "here is our standard for knowing what we did worked, why that standard is reasonable, and the data that proves our compliance." The shift difficulties are exacerbated by the board: we know what we don't want, but do not have a clearly articulated sense of what we do want. Four of us actually found the report "in compliance" initially even though the staff said it wasn't.

It is a new world to us too.

*The sample was pulled from the email database of 121,000 UUWorld recipients. Over 40% of the respondents were paid staff -- 5% were under the age of 34. Though I suspect the age ranges really do represent our congregations (at least they do in the Bay Area), the paid staff ratio suggested that the sample would not accurately mirror the universe of Unitarian Universalists.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Protecting Unitarian Universalist Identify

Eighth in a series of posts about the January UUA board meeting

The board took a controversial vote right before I joined it in 2007 -- a reduction from $250,000 to $225,000 each to Meadville Lombard Theological School and Starr King School for the Ministry (the Schools), distributed from a trust established with the board by the North shore Unitarian Universalist Society, now known as Shelter Rock*. This was the first stage of a recommendation from the Panel on Theological Education (Panel), which administers the fund, to drop operational funding to zero over four years.

It was not popular with the Schools, particularly Starr King, whose board members' calls to the UUA board were not particularly welcome. Though the decrease was arrested after a few years at $190,000, the board has never reversed its 2007 position.

Until now. Recognizing that distributing trust funds is not board work, the board voted to transfer the administration of the trust to the Staff. Under Policy Governance®, such moves are delineated with limitations -- in this case, limitations that are meant to safeguard what the Panel had decided it should focus on at their October retreat: Unitarian Universalist identity. As described in my May 7, 2009 post, identity was the path back to right relationship with the two schools. The limitations read:

5. [The President shall not] Jeopardize the formation of Unitarian Universalist identity within our professional ranks. Furthermore the President shall not:

5.1 Jeopardize right relationship with Meadville Lombard Theological School and Starr King School for the Ministry

5.2 Jeopardize the historical relationship between the UUA and Harvard Divinity School

Because this is uncharted territory, the Panel (as represented by me and UUA Director of Ministries and Faith Development Sarah Lammert, both members of the Panel), worked to provide the second step in this Carver-structured transfer: an operational definition that outlined how right relationship with Meadville Lombard and Starr King would be defined and measured, and the historic relationship with Harvard will be maintained. The idea was to provide some comfort to the board over how this trust would be administered.

The motion was approved with one abstention: the abstention to make a point that the three schools mentioned had Unitarian heritage, not Universalist, and had not always been hospitable to People of Color.

Though I am happy with the outcome of the vote, I am happier still with the process we went through to get there. The ideas behind the transfer started with the Panel itself, the policy crafted with the help of the Panel chair (Rob Eller-Isaacs). The operational definition was a collaborative process that brought out the best of our respective board/staff roles.

This is how Policy Governance should work.

*A paper with the background of the establishment of the trust and historic relationship between the Schools and the UUA board was provided in the January 2012 board packet, available from the UUA website.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

A new vision for immediate witness

Seventh in a continuing series of posts about the January UUA Board Meeting

The Board was joined by several members of the Commission on Social Witness, who were there to discuss some new ideas for immediate witness at General Assembly. There will be no Actions of Immediate Witness at this coming GA, but they will commence in 2013. The Commission is looking at various ways to make the process more meaningful with greater impact.

But first, some preliminaries.

The Commission read a statement about how they had felt dismissed and disrespected by the Moderator's Report at General Assembly. Moderator Gini Courter listened intently, and apologized, gracefully, several times. I suspect this had all been planned, and in my opinion, needed to happen to move forward in the kind of collaborative spirit the Board needs to have with the Commission.

The ideas presented for a "new vision" were interesting. They starting with some principles around social justice articulated by Dan McKanan, who fills our Emerson Chair at Harvard, including:
  • social justice and dialogue should be part of every General Assembly
  • if we already have consensus on an issue, the focus should be action
  • dialogue is needed if we don't yet have consensus
  • wordsmithing in plenary is almost never helpful

They then presented several ideas for Board input. These ranged from AIWs being proposed by congregations versus individuals, congregations proposing a social action project, handling AIWs like responsive resolutions (no petitions or mini-assemblies), and/or using an Open Space-like environment at GA for issues formulation. The only option that was discouraged was the social action project, as the lead time to do it well (and with local partners) made it unfeasible. The image of a large group of (mostly white, middle-class) people coming to town to demonstrate, with little or no contact with those who were impacted by the issue, then disappearing, was not flattering.