Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Doing the Business of the Association

Almost annually the UUA Moderator is asked to do some kind of a "wrap up" in the General Assembly closing. It usually has a specific theme or topic. Here are reflections I offered in June 2008, when the assigned topic was "Doing the Business of the Association". They provide a deeper dive into the topics of polity and theology than I could provide last month in the 2011 Moderator's Report. I'll be circling back to that topic later this week.

Doing the Business of the Association: Why We Meet, How We Do This Religiously
Closing Worship, 2008 General Assembly: A Meeting of Congrgations
Gini Courter, UUA Moderator and Chief Governance Officer

In five minutes or less, I am to summarize why we meet and how we do this religiously.

We start with two brief readings -

ARTICLE IV General Assembly
Section C-4.2. Powers and Duties.
General Assemblies shall make overall policy for carrying out the
purposes of the Association and shall direct and control its affairs.

And Conrad Wright, from Congregational Polity:
Polity defines the way in which we believe human beings should be related to each other. It is not a matter of casual social arrangements, but goes very directly to the heart of basic matters of theology.

We meet to make policy, to direct and control the affairs of our Association of Congregations, so that we can say “we’re happy that the folks in the states of New Hampshire and Vermont and Maine want to work together” and bless that relationship. We meet so that we can say Unitarian Universalism is best served by rescinding the categorization of ministries into exactly three types. We meet so we can say “ministry for young Unitarian Universalists is critical, not only for our future but for the present health of our faith” and “ministry for young adult Unitarian Universalists is of paramount importance”. We meet to say that if we knew more about Ethical Eating, we would better live our values in the world, so we should study that, all of us, right now, even while we are still figuring out our role in peacemaking. We meet to say all this and more, and the most important word I have uttered since I began is simple, short: we. Connecting, empowering: we. Not the UUA board, or the UUA president, or the UUA moderator or the professional ministry or the districts, or the UUA staff, but we.

The Unitarians and Universalists on whose shoulders we stand chose congregational polity. This was not a haphazard choice, a “let’s try this polity” choice, an arbitrary choice. There are other choices, other ecclesiastical polities, and by choosing congregational polity, we were not choosing the Episcopalian polity used by many faith communions – Anglican, for sure but also Catholic and Eastern Orthodox – where governance, this sacred thing we have been doing here together, is done by bishops and archbishops and bishops by other names.

In choosing congregational polity, we were not choosing the Presbyterian polity used by many faith communions – Presbyterians and the Reformed traditions among others – where governance, this sacred thing we have been doing here together, is owned by a hierarchy of councils presided over by the clergy from the congregation on up, where decisions of congregational councils can be overturned by higher level councils.

Our choice of congregational polity is based on our understanding of our relationships…our accountability to each other and to the community and to the holy, however we understand the words “community” and “holy”. Our choice of congregational polity reflects our sure knowledge that divine inspiration, human reason, and the prophetic voice that calls us to compassion and action in the service of justice – that prophetic voice resounds from the pews as well as the pulpits. Congregational polity reflects our recognition that the ministry of the congregation is always shared. Our choice of congregational polity requires that we meet, that we assemble, ministers and lay people selected by congregations, to make the decisions that in other polities are made by only the clergy, or by the clergy and the “special few” lay people.

And so we travel to Fort Worth, to St. Louis, to Portland, we come to Fort Lauderdale, we will journey to Salt Lake City, to Minneapolis, to Charlotte…. We come here because we are so much more together than we are alone. Some come for affinity, to find and know that there are other Unitarian Universalists who share parts of our identity. We come here to train and to learn and to share best practices. We gather to celebrate, once again. All these reasons to gather are wonderful, amazing, even true. But we don’t just come here to huddle together for the kind of warmth shared by puppies in a litter, we don’t just gather in all this plurality to find some affirmation of our uniqueness, we don’t just assemble to learn, important as learning is, we don’t just gather to celebrate our possibility and our promise. These reasons alone are not enough.

No…we gather here, free congregations freely assembled, freely choosing to walk together, to stand together, to roll together, to discuss, to debate, to discern together.

Our polity must be exercised. Our congregational polity must be exercised, or it will die. Whether or not we make decisions, decisions will be made. Decisions that direct our faith are made every day. Someone is making them. It is supposed to be we.

When we lay folks don’t care, don’t take part in decision making, leave it to the ministers whether they want it or not, we’ve abandoned our congregational polity for Episcopalian polity, and it will break us.

And when the only lay folks who care about decision making are the special few, the elect, those who can afford to participate, we abandon our congregational polity for the polity of the presbytery, and it will break us.

As we heard in last night’s Ware Lecture [by Van Jones], we need to be prepared to govern. I suggest we start here.

We gather here, free congregations freely assembled, freely choosing to walk together, to stand together, to roll together, even to rock and roll together, to discuss, to debate, to discern, to decide.

And then we must do one thing more. When we separate, when we leave, when we dis-assemble and return to our congregations, we’ll take back inspiration and new skills and new songs and new ways of thinking about pluralism and welcoming the stranger and being in solidarity and religious passion and the language of reverence and… and… and something more.

Since Friday, many congregational leaders have stopped me to ask “how do I get my congregation to support youth ministry? Young adult ministry? How do I engage my congregation in this ethical eating study action issue?” I love talking with you about what’s on your heart, what challenges you as a leader. I am flattered that you would consult with me on important matters. And I’m such a task-based person that I’ve gone right to the task of answering your questions, and in the process I have given you some really bad answers.

Here’s the right answer: We must take the decisions we made here together back to our congregations for discussion and affirmation. Schedule a congregational meeting, and make the agenda for your congregation’s meeting the resolutions from the agenda of this General Assembly. Prepare your congregation for this meeting. Ask your members to bring their heads and their hearts to the conversation, just as you did here. Read or show the statements that the presenters made – the video is already available on www.uua.org. Discuss, debate, discern, decide. Trust that the conversation in your congregation, like the conversation here, will be thoughtful and reflect the best thinking of your congregation, statements of passion and thoughtfulness filled with “I care so deeply and am afraid we might fail” and “I trust your thinking” and “We could” and then “We must”, statements expressed in lexicons of meaning, vocabularies of values, every reverential language we can summon forth.

Take this General Assembly home, but most especially the decisions we made here together in plenary, decisions that could change the future of our faith but only if we engage with them fully. Take them home. Take them home. It is our theology. It is our unique and precious Unitarian Universalist way: our polity, our hope and our promise.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

GA 2011: Tending the Flame

After the St. Louis General Assembly the Council on Cross-Cultural Engagement (Unitarian Universalist leaders talking about how we can be more amazingly adept at noticing and courageously crossing borders) brainstormed a list of ways we could use the skills we already have to make General Assembly (GA) a kinder experience more in keeping with our values. The GA Right Relationship Team was formed as a result of this Council conversation, as were the replacement of "energy breaks" with songs, and the notion that we might want to light a chalice (novel idea!) at the beginning of each plenary (business) session.
Part of planning the plenary agenda is selecting chalice lighters for each plenary. The Southeast district was our host for GA 2011, and so I asked the leadership of the Southeast district to light the chalice for our last plenary. They sent board member Nathan Hollister, whose chalice lighting gave me goosebumps. Here's my introduction and Nathan's chalice lighting from the live captioning feed. You can watch it at: http://www.uua.org/ga/2011/business/184337.shtml

Gini: I now call to order the final plenary session for this 50th General Assembly. It is my pleasure to ask an old friend who has served as a teller, and as a moderator at some of our mini assemblies here.
You know, sometimes Unitarian Universalism is a story about how you meet a new friend and then you realize that you knew them 20 years ago and where have they been? This is one of those kinds of stories. This is Nathan Hollister, and his father, who I only know as “Nathan's dad”. They're here to light the chalice this afternoon.

Nathan Hollister:
About 50 years ago, after helping to found congregations in Texas, Georgia, and Maryland, my grandparents, Fran and Bill Hollister, moved to Chapel Hill, North Carolina. There in the 60s, my grandparents worked with others to create a liberal religious home for those committed to racial justice, a home that came to be known as Eno River Unitarian Universalist Fellowship.
In 2006, my wife Robin and I moved to Chapel Hill to spend some time with Fran in her last few years. We began our tenure as youth group advisors on our second Sunday. And because of this, it wasn't until I found myself in a workshop on membership led by Reverend Morales that it occurred to me that although I'd been around for about eight months, I hadn't yet signed the membership book.
For whatever reason, I spoke up about this in the meeting. And to my great surprise and greater embarrassment, my minister, Don Southworth, upon hearing this, jumped out of his chair and took off out of the room. Moments later, he returned with the membership book in tow and asked me, in front of the other 30 or so participants of the workshop, if I would join the fellowship. So of course I said “Yes” and I was hauled up to the front of the room.
So there I stood, in front of my congregational leaders, future [UUA] President Morales, future UUMA Director Southworth, and amid much fanfare, prepared to sign the book. It was at that moment that my grandmother called out, “Wait - that's my grandson.” And everything in the room stopped.
My grandmother made her way slowly from the back of the room to stand next to me at the podium. She put her hand on my shoulder. She looked at me, and she said, "I want to be here for this." And I signed the book and I joined the fellowship that my grandparents helped to build for almost 50 years.
Today, as we open the last plenary session of our 50th anniversary, I'm carrying this story in my heart, and it's my wish that 50 years from now, I can stand where my grandmother stood, while future grandchildren make commitments to a vibrant, powerful, and liberating faith.
So in this spirit, here’s my dad, Allan Hollister, who was raised Unitarian Universalist by Fran and Bill, and has finally, finally made it to his first General Assembly ever. I'll ask him to light the chalice.
The warmth of our gathering here kindles a claim whose light can embrace the world.
Its spark lives in all of us and in the loving work that we do here.
This sacred fire ignites our passion for justice and warms our hearts to compassion.
It lights our way not clearly, not with a blinding and unyielding light, but with a flickering, dancing, and varied light. It's a light that warms us when we need it and one that burns us if that's what we need.
May it serve to strengthen our enduring covenants and, if I may say so, may it also serve to set fire to oppression and injustice.
Let us celebrate our past 50 years and the promise of the next 50.