Major Shift for General Assembly Reflects UUA Re-Branding

Wednesday’s UU Trivia Question of the day was “What is the GA theme for 2009?”  No one was able to guess, but it’s a very important issue, because it marks a permanent change.  The answer is “A Meeting of Congregations.”  This theme has already appeared in the 2008 GA publicity.  Unitarian-Universalists should pay attention to this.

First, we see here the continued re-branding of the Unitarian Universalist Association.  In fact, its full name nowadays is the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations, and the UUAoC means to fulfill that identity.  A whole host of actions have been taken that clarify the mission of the UUAoC as serving congregations and being an organization of congregations, not of individual religious believers, nor of serving as some sort of Vatican or final authority of UUism.  For example, the jettisoning of most of the Independent Affiliates was essentially a move to reorient the focus of the UUA onto congregations, rather than being involved in all sorts of non-congregational UU interest groups. Likewise, the defunding of independent young UU organizations was part of consolidating the UUA’s focus onto congregations alone.  Put another way: many of the most controversial events in recent UUA history (and more sure to come) are a direct result of this philosophical reconceptualization of what the UUA is and does.

This GA theme is very clear: General Assembly is not a meeting of individual UUs, or some sort of party for UUs, or whatever.  It is a meeting of congregations, perhaps rather business-oriented.  And there is something even more significant that GA junkies need to be aware of.  “A Meeting of Congregations” is the new permanent theme of GA.

That’s right–beginning in 2009 all future General Assemblies of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations will have the same theme: “A Meeting of Congregations.”  This was passed as a motion by the General Assembly Planning Committee in their January 2008 session.

Unitarian Universalists need to come to grips with the diminishing role of the UUA.  For many years UUs outside of Boston have existed in a love-hate relationship with the UUA.  Their natural anti-authority tendencies have caused people to project all sorts of nefarious agendas onto the UUA, which is partly why the UUA is reducing its role as leader of UUism.  At the same time, the need for programming, ministers, money, and all sorts of other resources, as well as the wish to be part of a larger movement than one’s local congregation, has caused UUs to look to the UUA for help, legitimation, and leadership.

The UUA is not going to dry up and blow away any time soon.  UUism isn’t going to die because GA gets a permanent, congregation-oriented theme.  Even cutting off the Independent Affiliates and YRUU and CUUYAN and a whole host of other things that don’t meet the new mandate still won’t be the death of UUism.  But the denomination will surely be dramatically affected by the cumulative effect of all these changes.  Unitarian Universalists no longer have the luxury of griping about the UUA and demanding that it give them what they want.  The UUA is fundamentally here to serve congregations–that is, specific types of corporate bodies of UUs–not individuals or special interests, be they young adults, Christians, Buddhists, or whatever.  Therefore, if Unitarian Universalists actually wish for either individuals or such groups to be served in ways that the UUA is no longer willing to do, they need to step up and start thinking about (and fundraising for) ways outside the UUA to get such services provided.

UUism has always been radically decentered, and no central authority has ever had the power or the right to tell them what to think, believe, or how to worship.  That includes the UUAoC, and it is now forcing UUs to acknowledge the prices and responsibilities of that freedom.  If UUs want a different vision of either the UUA or UUism, they’re going to have to roll up their sleeves and get to work.  On the other hand, if this is the direction people want to go in, this should come as a breath of fresh air.  All changes are always moments of opportunity, and something new may come from this de facto reboot of how the denomination does its business.



Filed under Liberal Religious History, Unitarian-Universalism

14 responses to “Major Shift for General Assembly Reflects UUA Re-Branding

  1. I think Unitarian Universalists like to think we’ve been radically decentered because it fits with the ideal of our polity, but that’s not how it has usually played.

    I think social and technological changes will push harder on practical decentralization than UUA leadership: a good thing if they’re anticipating these changes, not if it is at all reactionary.

  2. UU College Student

    I think what we’re going to see are a lot of people my age getting less and less involved, because without institutional support it is difficult for young adults to meet, organize, and have a spiritual home in a congregation. I also think that we are going to see congregations splinter and fracture due to internal politics revolving around lack of institutional support for groups. And THAT will be the end of the UUA…

  3. Umm… the tagline for all three General Assemblies that I have attended has been “A Meeting of Congregations,” and then there’s an overarching theme from there, like this year’s “Common Threads.”

    The actual purpose of GA, to my understanding, is a business meeting of the member congregations of the UUA, represented by their delegates. The convention-like circus is something completely different, and in my opinion detracts from the real work that needs to be done in such a business meeting.

    I feel that the UUA’s new focus on congregations is a good thing for the movement, because the congregations are where our resources are really centered. By supporting the congregations rather than these outside affiliate groups, there is a great opportunity to enable those congregations to reach out and build programs that serve their communities, and those members of affiliate groups who could be better served by a *local* effort. By supporting the districts and congregations, we build a stronger foundation for our national movement.

    I’m a young adult parent — none of the national or district YA programs have done a damn thing for me. The congregations, however, have made a huge difference in my life and support systems.

  4. Pingback: Boy in the Bands » Blog Archive » What common distributed work would work for UUs?

  5. We’ve been having this same discussion for around 200 years or so… here’s a link to one from 1923…

  6. Jeff

    Jess, you’re right that the slogan’s been lurking around already for a while. But now it has officially been made the permanent theme of GA. That’s a real change, required a motion, a discussion, and a vote at the official planning meeting.

    Steven: I bet we’ll be having this conversation in another 200 years too. Well, not us, but UUs and whomever they’ve merged with by then. . .

  7. I’ll remind us all that the GA Planning Committee is accountable solely to the General Assembly. I personally support the shift that the Board, Committees, and Administration are making towards a more firmly congregationally based work ethic, and as a GAPC member 2005-2006, was part of the discussions that lead to recent decisions.

    If you don’t like this, you can make the GAPC at the very least change how it runs GA, by electing people you like to it, and proposing GA Business that orders the GAPC to do things specific way.


  8. Jeff

    Thanks for a helpful comment, Donald. My intention in highlighting all of this is not to fan hysteria, but to point out a significant ongoing change that UUs should be aware of, whether they support it or not. Hopefully better education about what’s going on and what sort of power UUs have to help in the decisions will lead to outcomes people are happy with, whatever they may be.

  9. Perhaps a better name would be “(American) Association of Unitarian Universalist Congregations”? The re-branding trend underlines that congregations come first, and congregations are Unitarian Universalist, as most street signs note. Using the UU label to define congregations rather than the national association would be consistent with that outlook.

  10. The longer I was on the UUA staff — I retired last summer after a decade — the more firmly I held the opinion that no movement that matters much has but one robust institution. We commonly refer to Unitarian Universalism as a movement, but it’s not moving — our tiny band has long been growing at a rate slightly less than that of the U.S. population. And Unitarian Universalism has but one robust institution, the UUA. So it should be no surprise that we’re mired.

    Think of the huge number of robust Catholic institutions — not just the dioceses and archdioceses but the universities, Catholic Charities, the international agencies, organizations of lay people that challenge the hierarchy, the various orders of priests and nuns, many of which hold powerful social justice positions and offer ministry to people conservative Catholics abhor. Unitarian Universalism is tiny blip on the map of world religions, and it will always remain so till it has strong organizations that fulfill many roles and hold many positions.

    So I see the UUA’s tightening focus on the congregations as a welcome invitation for UUs to channel their energy into creating other robust UU institutions. Lots of UU groups have been dependent on the UUA; I suspect that it would be very healthful if these groups were to become independent — and robust. Two or three robust UU institutions would keep one other on their toes, and learn from one another, and challenge one another the way individual UUs do by coming together in congregations. More would be better.

    The UUSC, after a near-death experience, is coming back to life under Charlie Clements’ buoyant leadership. Who will be next?

    I am fueled by the belief that the stronger liberal religion is the better the world is. So I am devoted to doing all I can to end our faith’s self-marginalization. This is why I am a strong supporter of Peter Morales for the UUA presidency — he has a transformative vision — and why I hope more strong UU groups will form independent of the UUA.

  11. Jeff,
    I’m just amazed at how often people who attend GA as delegates, and leaders of our congregations and districts and related organisations have absolutely NO idea how our UUA committees, administration, Board, the General Assembly etc etc relate to each other.

    I personally believe that many of the problems we have had in YRUU and C*UUYAN that lead to recent hysteria surrounding the slicing of administrative funding for those groups is directly accountable to leaders of those Sponsored Organisations refusing to spend the very little time needed to understand the basics of these relationships. To understand their intricacies can take a lifetime, because they do change, but the basics of “the Board is responsible for X” and “Only the General Assembly can do Y” have to be things that our leaders know, if not before they achieve their offices, then in a very short time into them.

  12. Elz

    Several different threads to knot into this:

    1) Tom is right about not having only one dynamic institution. That realization has been what allowed us to start growing large congregations, and I’m really happy that courage has finally percolated upwards.

    2) Youth are in a different situation. It is common in every culture for youth/young adults to need a safe and boundedtime outside the core community for finding themselves and meeting some test they have either devised or accepted. Our Coming of Age programs are designed to do this, but it’s too soon to tell how many folks will find them an adequate replacement for that whole culture of cons and camps.

    As a religious educator who cares about free and equal polity, I feel that the old youth culture stuff (from which I came, in LRY) served a major purpose. The problem was that we did not have a way to bring youth/young adults into the congregations on a fair and equal footing, once they had proven themselves to themselves. On the contrary, we had filled their heads — and sometimes our own — with lots of unrealistic and unpastoral messaging about “changing and saving the world.” So they/we came back in from youth-world with an agenda that did not respect congregational realities.

    UU youth culture had a strong track record of producing great leaders, including lots of women far before congregations could accept women clergy. Yet the UU youth movement suffered from being too disconnected from congregational realities back at home. The key would not have been to abolish this universal process for our youth — which will send more of them off into politics and Boy Scouts and such — but to refine our reintegration process at the congregational level.

  13. Elz, why are speaking of these issues in the past tense? I see them as ongoing, happening right now.

    I know I have to be at one of those youth conferences less than a month from now.

  14. Pingback: UUA's new ad, making family time, and more « : The Interdependent Web

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