Thursday, July 02, 2009

Rev. Thom's Report on General Assembly

[This will be a long blog entry that will evolve over the coming days. As long as this italicized header appears at the top of the entry, please continue to check back for more information.]

I spent the last ten days of June in Salt Lake City in order to attend the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly as well as meetings of the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association Executive Committee, two days of professional development programming for ministers, and a couple days of vacation at the end of the week. During parts of the week I was joined by SMUUCh President Keith Dalton, by Elizabeth Barker who came to promote Julia’s Voice, by Don Skinner who serves on the UUA staff, and by our former Intern Minister Anne Griffiths. During the week I also ran into former SMUUCh member Jen Forker who is now preparing for the UU ministry at Iliff Seminary in Denver.

Sunday 6/21
For the last three years I have served on the ten-member Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association Executive Committee (UUMA Exec.) This was my swan-song meeting with them as my term and duties came to an official end. I booked my plane ticket to Salt Lake City to arrive on Sunday, June 21 with the understanding that we would begin meeting on Sunday afternoon, but travel difficulties for some of our members pushed our meeting back a day.

On Sunday evening, I enjoyed fellowship with six other members of the Exec. Let me say just a few words about the UUMA and the UUMA Exec. The mission of the UUMA is to serve Unitarian Universalism by promoting excellence in ministry through collegiality and continuing education. The UUMA is a professional organization that is unique. No other denomination has a parallel organization for its clergy. Serving on the Exec for the past three years, I have held the portfolio of Communications and Publications. My role has included acting as the editor for our newsletter, working on a major redevelopment of our website, and imagining the future of communications among our more than 1,600 members. Outside of my work on communications, the members of the UUMA Exec serve various subgroups of our constituents such as retirees, students, community ministers, and non-lead ministers, just to name a few. We have worked intentionally with members of the UUA staff, sometimes to jointly support a project and often to define our respective responsibilities so that our work is not conflated. As a professional organization the UUMA Exec is the group charged with the discipline of our members who transgress against our professional code of ethics. At times we also function as a union, working to protect the professional rights of ministers.

Monday 6/22
One of the ways we protect the professional rights of ministers and hold ourselves up to our professional standards is through our Good Offices program. On Monday, the UUMA Exec sponsored a day-long training for Good Offices representatives from across the country. Good Offices representatives are trained to mediate when there is conflict between ministers. They also advocate on behalf of ministers when there is conflict between a minister and a congregation. Good Offices representatives are versed in “canon law” and advocate for the professional rights of ministers. Sometimes their work includes negotiating severance packages for ministers leaving a congregation and rarely the UUMA Exec has been known to bring sanctions against a congregation. A congregation that has committed gross misconduct towards its minister might face sanctions that bar the congregation from receiving ministerial services. These instances are exceedingly rare, however. More often, the UUMA uses “soft power.”

As an outgoing member of the UUMA Exec I was not expected to attend the Good Offices training. Instead, I spent the morning at Salt Lake City’s finest independent bookstore, Sam Weller’s Zion Bookstore. In the afternoon, I returned to the convention center where I helped our UUMA Administrator and arrangements portfolio holder set up registration for Ministry Days. Following a reception for ministers, the UUMA Exec gathered in our hotel suite for a late night, two hour business meeting.

Tuesday 6/23
The next day was the first full day of programming. The morning began with worship and then a keynote address by the famed poet and activist Sonia Sanchez. I found her poetry to be superb and some of her stories to be moving, however, I think I am too much of a linear thinker to fully appreciate all the different directions in which she took her presentation. Sonia Sanchez has also been commissioned to write a poem for the new “Standing on the Side of Love” campaign, that I will come back to later. I hope to be able to provide a link to this poem.

Following lunch, I attended a three hour afternoon workshop led by Dan Hotchkiss, author of the brand new book, Governance and Ministry: Rethinking Board Leadership. In the months to come I will be reading his new book, but I found his workshop immensely insightful. Hotchkiss is not a disciple of John Carver and Policy Governance©. He points out what he finds useful in that governance structure and also what he finds less than useful.

Hotchkiss’ most intriguing points from his presentation had to do with democracy. Hotchkiss insists that democracy is essentially “accumulating by arithmetic the personal preferences of a group of people.” He insists that the inherent problem with democracy is that future members don’t get to vote. Hotchkiss asks leaders to think in terms that make the mission of the church (and not its members!) the owners of the church. When leaders make the mission the owner of the church, future members are accounted for insofar as they have a place in the church’s mission.

Further, Hotchkiss insists there is something incongruent between a democratic system based on preferences and satisfaction and the job of the minister. He states that it is the minister’s role to get people to “Abandon satisfaction in the life they have in favor of a life they have not yet imagined.” Another point he makes is that one of the reasons that governance is so often a struggle is that religion is “disruptive and unsettling” and “is about transforming people’s lives” whereas governance seeks to make things organized, neat, and tidy. These were just a few of his provocative insights; I can’t wait to read his book.

Following the Hotchkiss workshop came one of my favorite parts of Ministry Days. The UUA President stands before the assembled ministers, delivers a brief address and then takes questions from the floor. Oftentimes, these questions can be somewhat pointed. However, with Rev. Bill Sinkford leaving office in a matter of days, people pulled back from asking the hard-hitting questions. The UUA presidency is a lonely job and one taking the job can expect constant critique from one constituency or another. However, President Sinkford was received by his colleagues in a way that was warm and healing. During his address, he spoke to one of his regrets from his presidency: that our movement did not grow more rapidly than it did. He spoke about trying different approaches to growth including large church starts, advertising, marketing, and publicity in the public arena. However, our movement remains about the size that it was at merger in 1961.

During the Q+A portion, one colleague asked him what gifts he takes with him as he leaves office as well as what "hard truths" he learned. Rev. Sinkford paused and then replied. He said that the biggest gift he received from his service was a much deeper prayer life. To paraphrase Sinkford, “I thought that the spiritual practice I had would be adequate to the task of serving our movement. It was not. Serving our movement required of me a far deeper prayer life than I could have imagined." Next he answered the "hard truth" part of the question by saying that we can only achieve our goals through collective action but that collective action is not something that we are good at which makes it hard for us to see our dreams realized and our values made manifest in the world.

Wednesday 6/24
This was by far my fullest day of the ten days I spent in Salt Lake City. Each year this day never fails to be my favorite day. The day begins with a wonderful and moving worship service known as the 25/50 worship service. It is a worship service only for ministers; it is a service honoring and celebrating those who have completed 25 years of ministry and those who have completed 50 years of ministry. Each class selects a class speaker so we get to hear two sermons by luminaries in our movement. This year speakers will be hard to top. Kim Crawford Harvie, minister of the Arlington Street Church in Boston, was the 25 year speaker. She dazzled. The 50 year speaker was Clark Olsen, who was present when UU minister James Reeb was murdered during the protests in Selma. Olsen spent most of his long sermon seemingly avoiding any mention of Selma only to return to that incident in his sermon’s stirring conclusion. The UUMA newsletter, which I no longer publish, will contain both sermons. I will provide a link when these become available.

For each of the last three years I’ve been honored to participate as a liturgist during the 25/50 service due to my service on the UUMA Exec. This year I delivered a reading, Robert Weston’s piece entitled “Out of Stars” that is reading #530 in our hymnal. I will miss participating in this service each year but I won't miss having to schlep my preaching robe around the country.

Just like at the congregational meetings we have at SMUUCh, the 25/50 service concluded by shifting into our annual business meeting. I won’t spend too much time covering the details of the meeting except to mention two high points. The first high point is a theological initiative that the UUMA has created called “Whose Are We?” This program was developed following a summit held in Seattle in December 2008 on the theme of “Excellence in Ministry.” You can read the keynote address at that summit here. “Whose Are We?” has received some significant grant funding. It calls on UU ministers to engage in significant theological discussion around questions like, “What is the basis of your authority?”, “To whom are you accountable?”, and “To whom do you answer?” During the 2010/2011 church year there will be a call for every single parish minister to deliver a sermon on this topic.

The second interesting development at the UUMA annual meeting was the call to vote on a major overhaul of our dues structure. The proposed restructuring would increase significantly the professional dues for most ministers. The dues structure was proposed in order for the UUMA to hire an Executive Director and to grow our capacity. For me, the vote to overhaul the dues structure would incrementally raise my annual professional association dues from $225 to approximately $800. Some of my colleagues will be asked to go well over $1,000 in their dues. I was amazed and slightly surprised to see the vote for a dues increase pass with somewhere between 90 and 95 percent approval. I take this as a sign that our mission and vision is compelling to our members.

Following lunch I facilitated a “collegial conversation” among 25 to 30 of my colleagues on the subject of the revision of our professional guidelines. I was joined by three members of the guidelines revision committee who did all the heavy lifting in the conversation. The parts of our guidelines that generated the hottest discussion included our guidelines that have to do with human sexuality as well as the guidelines that speak to the professional relationship between a “lead” minister and a “support” or secondary minister as well as guidelines that talk about the relationship between a minister serving a congregation and either retired or emeritus/emerita ministers in a congregation.

In the mid-afternoon came the second highlight of the day, the Berry Street Address. The Berry Street Address is an annual academic lecture given to the ministers by one of our own. Being asked to deliver the Berry Street is one of the highest honors it is possible to receive. The lecture has been given (almost) every single year since 1820. If you are interested, you can find the attempt to locate and publish every Berry Street address even given on-line. There is a certain amount of precision, pomp, and circumstance to this lecture. The Berry Street scribe begins by calling to order the conference at Berry Street and makes some remarks about the history of the conference. The scribe then yields to the chair who offers a prayer. Next the scribe calls on the assembled body to elect a moderator. This part is always fixed and a minister nominates another minister. The scribe quickly interrupts and declares that hearing no other nominations, that person is duly elected moderator. The moderator then introduces the essayist.

This year’s Berry Street address was delivered by Paul Rasor who served for a short time in the Parish Ministry before becoming an academic theologian. Rasor is the author of the book Faith Without Certainty and is a professor at Virginia Wesleyan College where he is also the director of the Center for the Study of Religious Freedom. Selecting a theme that would reoccur throughout the rest of the week, Rasor lectured on racial diversity and multiculturalism. I was surprised by the degree to which his essay concentrated on demographic statistics. It was not until towards the end that he came back to theology. The essayist gets to select a respondent. Paul Rasor selected Rosemary Bray McNatt, Senior Minister of the Fourth Universalist Church in New York City. If Rasor supplied the “head”, McNatt gave us the “heart.” Her “response” was thoroughly powerful and I’ve already emailed her and asked if she could send me a copy of what she said. She spoke powerfully about how our relative racial homogeneity harms our religion and then preached a stunning indictment about our failures of hospitality. I hope to give you a sampling in the days ahead of some of what she said.

My day was not yet complete. Following the Berry Street Address I attended a brief reception in the UUMA suite in which we went through a ritual of saying “goodbye” to the outgoing Exec members (including me!) and giving a “welcome” to the new members joining the Exec. It was emotional to say goodbye.

Finally, after the reception is was time to attend the first event of General Assembly. (It is always a little bit odd to realize that GA is only beginning after you’ve already been through two very intensive days of programming.)

General Assembly begins with an banner parade and opening plenary. This years opening session was a bit distinct as UUA President Bill Sinkford held the stage for a long period in which he delivered his President’s Report which was much more of a retrospective on his eight years of service as the UUA President.
Sinkford mentioned his sermon in Ft. Worth in 2002 that set off what is now known as the “Language of Reverence” debate. He credited this sermon with making it more acceptable for UUs to use spiritual language and claim those words for ourselves.

He mentioned the tremendous advances in marriage equality that happened during his presidency and how UUs had been on the front lines in working to support marriage equality.

He talked about the ongoing horrors of genocide and how he had been arrested for civil disobedience outside of the Sudanese embassy in Washington D.C.

He announced wonderful news: that the UUA's Beacon Press had reached an agreement with Estate of Martin Luther King, Jr. to be the sole trade publisher of King's writings. (The University of California, Berkeley will retain the ability to pusblish academic editions of King's writings.) This is awesome!

He announced the successful completion of the “Now is the Time” capital campaign. This campaign raised over $50 million dollars (over $20 million in cash gifts and $30 million in legacy gifts.) By reaching this goal, Sinkford became the only UUA President to start and successfully finish a capital campaign in his time in office.

Finally Sinkford announced the “Standing on the Side of Love” campaign. Following the Knoxville shooting last Summer and the courage and conviction with which that congregation responded, the UUA developed this campaign. You can read more about it here and I will be preaching on this subject on July 12.
I should say at this point that you can find many of the events from General Assembly available in the form of written reports or multimedia presentations on the UUA Website. Click here for info. on Sinkford's report.

By this point I had had a full day. It was time to retire and look forward to Thursday.

Thursday 6/25
I began the day, the first full day of General Assembly, like I had in previous years, by hosting a 7:00am UUMA Student Breakfast for seminarians and those considering UU ministry. As the host I gave a quick spiel about the UUMA, asked each table to engage in a structured conversation around a question, and then fielded questions about the UUMA and ministry. This was my last official act as a member of the UUMA Exec.

Immediately following the breakfast I had a moment of temporary confusion. As a member of the UUMA Exec., I spent the three previous years skipping the programming of General Assembly and attending several days of business meetings in our suite with a never-ending parade of guests. My term was over, now what? I’ve been attending General Assemblies for a long time and I recognize the importance of pacing myself. Here are the GA’s I’ve attended:
1998 Rochester, New York: Attended GA
1999 Salt Lake City: Attended GA
2000 Nashville: Attended as UUA Staff
2001 Cleveland: Did Not Attend
2002 Quebec City: Attended Ministry Days and GA
2003 Boston: Attended Ministry Days and GA
2004 Long Beach: Attended Ministry Days and GA
2005 Ft. Worth: Attended Min. Days, returned early to conduct memorial service
2006 St. Louis: Attended Ministry Days, member of UUMA Exec.
2007 Portland, Oregon: Attended Ministry Days, member of UUMA Exec.
2008 Ft. Lauderdale: Attended Ministry Days, member of UUMA Exec.
After the student breakfast I spent Thursday morning relaxing and letting myself get caught up after the frantic pace of the day before. For lunch, I met with a divinity school student who had recently completed her internship and advised her about preparing to see the Ministerial Fellowship Committee, the credentialing body for UU ministers.

Following lunch, I had the best of intentions. This year UU University was wrapped into General Assembly and both ministers and lay people were strongly encouraged to attend. Our Board President attended the governance track and found it very helpful. I attempted to attend the track on multi-generational worship but I only lasted a little over an hour. My preferred learning style was completely and utterly different than how the instructors presented this material. For me, it was not time well-spent.

Later that evening I attended the Candidate’s Forum featuring the two candidates running for UUA President, Peter Morales and Laurel Hallman. It was well-known, ever since Peter completely dominated the Candidate’s Forum at the 2008 General Assembly that Peter had out-shined Laurel in every subsequent debate. However, at Thursday’s Forum, the two candidates appeared more equally matched than they had at any time in the campaign. After long, long days on Tuesday and Wednesday, I was happy to enjoy a shorter day on Thursday.

[Check back here in the coming days for more details about my trip to General Assembly.]