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Direct Democracy and UUA “citizenship” – part 3

1 Apr

Friends,

My final (I think) post in a series on exploring what direct democracy might look like if we implemented it at the UUA is now available over on the Lively Tradition.

I am thinking it would be worthwhile to set up a few google hangouts on this topic, so if you are interested in having future conversations about this topic, please let me know!

Blessings!

Dawn

direct democracy in the UUA.

20 Nov

This post originally appeared at the Lively Tradition. Please leave any comments there. 

 

Assumption #1: That we want to bring more diverse voices to the table of governance at General Assembly.

Assumption #2: What we have been doing is not working.

Assumption #3: Continuing to do the same thing and expecting different results is the definition of insanity.

In a previous post (both on my blog and on the Lively Traditiondemoc4), I wrote that we may want to consider moving toward direct democracy (rather than indirect) in regards to who has a vote at General Assembly. In the thought experiment I proposed, some wise folks (tbd) would decide what UUA “Citizenship” means, and then everyone who meets those requirements would get a vote.

There were a variety of different responses to the post. Some people shared they like the delegate system as it is. To those of you in this camp, please refer to the assumptions above.

Other shared that they thought that when covenanted communities are given the right to vote, that this will bring more people to the table. This may be true, but I can’t help but wonder about scalability in this situation. If a covenanted community of 10 people gets 1 delegate, then a congregation of 1000 would presumably get 100, at which point it seems as though we might as well just give everyone the franchise.

Others leaned on our history in one of two ways. First, some felt that our system is “how we have always done it” and that therefore it should not be tinkered with. This is not actually accurate. At it’s formation, and until 1900, the AUA was only an organization with individual members. But this was before the internet, so people were not well connected to one another and this made the organization weak. The Unitarian universe was given an important boost in 1900 when the AUA merged with the National Conference of Unitarian Churches, which was congregations only. When the UUA was formed, the original bylaws had language in them around “Life Members” until the last of the Life Members died and that part of the bylaws were amended, sometime in the early to mid-90s (I believe).

The second way people leaned on our history was to talk about what it means to be a Unitarian Universalist. In the early 90s and into the early parts of the 2000’s, there was a resurgence of interest in congregational polity. This resurgence contained within it the idea that you can not be a “real” UU unless you belong to a UU congregation. This membership argument proposed that those hundred thousand (or more) people who say that they are Unitarian Universalist but who don’t belong to a congregation, really aren’t UUs after all. This resurgence in covenant was important, because at the time we were really struggling to shift from a focus on who weren’t towards a more positive focus on who we are. By saying that covenanted community is what makes a UU, we were finding a positive (though very limiting) way to claim our identity.

Finally, when arguing against the idea of moving toward direct democracy, some people said that before we consider moving to such a model, we would have to have a better idea of what “citizenship” in the UUA meant. What would the requirements be?

I think I have a way to satisfy both the history folks and the “need a definition folks” in one big way. If we were to move towards direct democracy, I think that we could make “participation in a Unitarian Universalist Covenanted Community” a requirement.

Please note that I am using this term in the broadest sense: congregations are covenanted communities, but so are UU summer camps, and so are online communities, professional organizations such as the UUMA, and so many more. The UUA Board (with help!) would need to figure out how to define a covenanted community – I know they are working on it already.

In this model, Covenanted Communities would be able to define for themselves what “participation” meant, just as congregations can define for themselves what “membership” means. Some congregations have a financial donation as a requirement of membership, some do not. Some covenanted communities might have “participate in outreach once a year” or “volunteer in some capacity” or “show up” as requirements. This would be left to the covenanted communities to determine.

And I don’t think it needs to be too confusing. Tracking participation could possibly use the same system we use now. Congregations are supposed to update their membership information when new members join and when old members leave. This membership information means that they get the UU World but also places them on the mailing list for other UU-related issues as well. If our system is not robust enough for this level of tracking, well then we need some major technological upgrades because we should have a robust database that allows us to do all sorts of data mining.

Would this allow all the “free-range Unitarian Universalists” to suddenly have a say at General Assembly? No, because many of them don’t participate, and won’t, in any covenanted communities. But there are certain groups of people who would: young adults who participate in campus ministry, families who attend UU Camps but do not hold membership in a local congregation, DREs, community ministers and other religious professionals who often don’t get to be a delegate but who are very invested in the present and future of our faith tradition and who are members of their professional organizations (which definitely seem to me to be a covenanted community!).

Some might argue that these folks could/should just go join the CLF. For some, perhaps, this is a viable workaround. But it isn’t for everyone – and certainly not for religious professionals (for whom we have inadvertently created a second class of ministry). The UU Chaplain who works in a town without a UU congregation does not necessarily get to be a delegate if she joins the CLF, though other ministers who are serving or affiliated with congregations are still granted the franchise.

So, to summarize: I was originally proposing a move from indirect democracy to direct democracy as a thought experiment. While I am still open to considering alternatives, I am finding myself more and more excited by the possibilities. And I am deeply disappointed that this option was not discussed at all on the current “Re-Imagining UUA Governance” survey.

We have a history of allowing individual members, and the internet and social media are wonderful correctives to the disconnection that the AUA struggled with (and was weakened by) in the late 1800s. By requiring “participation in a covenanted community” as a requirement of UUA membership for individuals, we address the concern of the centrality of covenant to our relationships with one another, as it is in covenanted communities where we grow into our best selves and search for truth and meaning in our lives. These communities are where we worship, grow, share meals and serve together. They are where we explore and live our our values. Shouldn’t all Unitarian Universalists who have found such a community, whether it is a traditional brick & mortar congregation or in an emerging online covenanted community, be able to have a say in the direction of our faith tradition?

 

This post originally appeared at the Lively Tradition. Please leave any comments there. 

removing barriers to participation in governance.

21 Oct

Join me on a thought experiment, won’t you? In this blog posting, I want to explore an idea, not advocating a particular pathway; to think outside the box and see what happens.

Imagine with me that there is an organization called the Evolution Society. They have an important message about evolution that they want to share with as many people as possible – to really get it out there. They initially appeal to institutions of higher eduction, which join as members and provide funding. But other people want in – people who are not affiliated with the institutions of higher eduction. Some of those people have money they want to give to fund the expansion of the message. Some want to join because they want the snazzy brochures the Evolution Society puts out. Some live in areas where the Creationist Society is dominant and they want to keep in touch with people like them. These folks want in!

Credit: barebente

Credit: barebente

Now let’s say that some members of the Evolution Society really don’t want it to evolve. They want to keep their membership limited to institutions. They have agreed to expand the types of institutions that can join them, but these new types of institutions won’t be able to vote or participate in the governance of the society. And they encourage free-range members to join an institution, preferably a university or college. They are afraid of what might happen if they open membership up, and besides, doing it this way has worked for them for decades.

Fast forward 10 years, and the Evolution Society is struggling and exists only on the campuses of a few colleges and universities. They have become fringe. Instead of closing their doors, the Evolution Society lingers, slowly shrinking in both membership and relevance. Pretty soon, they are serving a bare minimum of folks and their message is not on the cultural radar. They are virtually extinct.

Meanwhile, the Creationist Society has been much less picky about who they let in. They they have established strongholds not only in the places where the Evolution Society already exists, but have expanded across the country and world. They have small groups, coffee clubs, and even bird watching groups that spread their message.

 

So here is my wondering: Is the UUA like the Evolution Society?

Yes, for a long time we have been the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations.

But a look at the cultural landscape tells us that that fifty years from now, religious life will primarily be lived outside of congregations. It might be lived in coffee houses or living rooms. It might be lived with smaller groups of people, seeking deeper and more intentional spirituality. It might be lived in yoga classes or birdwatching groups that connect their faith to the work they do to preserve songbird habitat. Congregations will, hopefully, continue to exist, but the number of people who feed their religious and spiritual needs that way will be small in comparison to the number 50 years ago.

So it was with interest that two pieces in the current UUA Board packet caught my attention. The Emerging Congregations Working Group submitted a proposal for the creation of Covenanted Communities, which are defined as claiming UU principles and sources, furthering UU values in the world, committed to being in covenant with the larger UU movement, etc.

I am excited about this idea, as it is a new way of addressing the Beyond part of Congregations and Beyond. At this time, the Working Group recommends that these Covenanted Communities not be member congregations – meaning they will not receive voting privileges. I understand why the Working Group made this recommendation – there will initially be vast amounts of confusion between what the difference is between”related organizations” and “covenanted communities.” By not giving Covenanted Communities voting rights (which related organizations also do not have), they are not privileging one group over another.

Perhaps, down the road, these groups will get the right to participate in our governance. I trust that the UUA Board and leadership will work through the complexities involved in making this happen.

But when I read the 2009 Fifth Principle Task Force Report, also included in the Board’s packet this month, it gave me pause, and I started to wonder.

Don’t get me wrong, the 5th Principle Task Force did an amazing job analyzing and laying out the issues with our current General Assembly process. Their conclusions advocate for a smaller, less frequent General Assembly, with fewer delegates but whose registration and room and board are paid for. Yay! This is great!

As an aside: They also express concern that “Substantive linkage and distant delegates participating through offsite voting are initially a clash of values” and so advocate that technology being used for learning and for observing, but not participating in the actual governance. As someone who was an off-site delegate this year, I disagree. It was such an amazing experience to be able to participate in our General Sessions from afar.

But getting back to the issue at hand. One might argue that both these reports seem to want to continue to put up barriers to participation in our governance, when perhaps we may want to consider the exact opposite. What it would look in the future if, instead, we opened up governance up to all Unitarian Universalist “citizens”?

I have heard the argument that one must be a member of a congregation to be a Unitarian Universalist, because we are a covenantal faith and you must be in covenant in a congregation in order to be a part of us. But people are demonstrating left and right that we can be in covenant with one another in ways other than through congregations. This means that requiring membership in a congregation has become a barrier to participation for many people who consider themselves Unitarian Universalist but are not members of a congregation. If we are looking to remove barriers to participation in our governance, might we want to look at opening the possibility of participation up to even more people, rather than further reducing it?

In this model, certain important elements would not change. We would continue to need a very strong Board of Trustees. We would continue to have an Administration and Staff that work to achieve the ends of the Association. The UUA would still provide strong support to congregations and other covenanted communities. I am only suggesting that we look at who can vote, and imagine what it might be like if we considered opening it up instead of locking it down.

We would need to work out some details, such as how to determine UUA “citizenship” – but that is an exploration for another time. I trust that our great minds can figure such a thing out.

I believe that we need a robust Unitarian Universalist Association that can serve stakeholders that may or may not belong to a congregation. A UUA where all who meet certain “citizenship” requirements are able to participate, whether or not they are affiliated with a congregation. We have more free-range Unitarian Universalists than we do congregation members. Many of these folks were raised in our congregations. Might we want to allow them to have a say in the future of our faith tradition?

I understand this sounds like heresy. As I said, this is a thought experiment. It seems to me that if we want to achieve our governance goals of greater and more diverse participation, direct democracy is going to be more effective than indirect (which is what we have now).

Culturally, younger people favor direct democracy. In addition, particularly as our technology continues to allow more and more off-site participation, more people would be able to participate. Direct democracy also gives privileges to marginalized voices – people who may not be their congregation’s delegate but whose lived reality adds important depth to the conversation.

We are moving into a post-congregational era of our cultural history. We see the signs all around us. Congregations won’t die out, I don’t believe that, but we won’t have as many as we have had, and more and more people who identify as Unitarian Universalists won’t belong to one. I want Unitarian Universalism to evolve with the times, and this means looking who we are.

What do you think? What are the pros/cons of direct/indirect democracy? And with these questions in mind, how might we best live our global end of “A healthy Unitarian Universalist community that is alive with transforming power, moving our communities and the world toward more love, justice, and peace in a manner which assures institutional sustainability”?

 

Unitarian Universalism’s relationship to Christianity, part 3.

15 Oct

In the first part of this post, over on the The Lively Tradition, I argued that whether or not we are Christian (which varies depending on how you define Christian), we are part of Christendom and that by saying we are not, we lose some of our power. In the second part, which I posted on this blog, I worked on some of the “so what?” issues.

All that being said, I also think Unitarian Universalism is moving toward something, as was mentioned in the comments on the original post.  Perhaps it is like cell mitosis, only instead of being an exact replica of the original cell, we are evolving into something different.

But I don’t believe we can move healthily in any new direction until we make peace with where we have come from.  Unitarian Universalists have had so many folks who came/come to us wounded and accepting “all religions except Christianity” for so long that, now, as our congregations embrace a more spiritual or theistic humanism it can look/feel like we are going backwards. But I truly don’t think we are – we are healing, which is absolutely necessary for us to move forward with strength and power.

Albuquerque UU, taken by Denis Paul.

Albuquerque UU, taken by Denis Paul.

A Universalist message of loving the hell out of the world is powerful.

A Humanist message that it is our responsibility to do so is powerful.

A Unitarian message of not having to think alike to love alike is powerful.

A Pagan message of we are all connected is powerful.

We need all this, and more.  Not one over/above another.  And not “all except this one…”

Indeed, if we look at our congregations, we see how they vary. Particularly if we break it down geographically, we find vast differences in how our message is incarnated in our congregations.

How wonderful that different aspects of our message appeal in different contexts, geographies, and congregations!  This flexibility, this fluency in a variety of different ways of being religious, gives us strength and power. It makes our faith tradition both unique and highly relevant to contemporary life.

problems with being on the fringe.

15 Aug

This blog entry originally appeared over on The Lively Tradition

I have heard Unitarian Universalist congregations described as “Islands of Misfit Toys.” This metaphor comes from the Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer TV show from the 70s that many of us are probably familiar with.

The problem with acting as though we are islands of misfit toys is that we just stand around doing nothing. Toys are meant to bring joy to peoples’ lives. Television viewers celebrate when all the toys leave the island and go find homes where they can live into the fullness of their creation. If we, as Unitarian Universalists, relegate ourselves to the fringe, to being islands of misfit toys, then we are not out there living into the fullness of our past, present, and future.

Taken one step further, if we want to be about cultural transformation, we cannot abdicate our power by putting ourselves on the fringe. We need, instead, to be out there, amongst people, speaking the language of the culture that we are trying to transform. Goodness knows they need us actively loving the hell out of the world, particularly in weeks like this when hell is on display in every window.

A few years ago, I saw an increase in my colleagues taking Spanish lessons as we prepared to have a very unique General Assembly in Phoenix. We wanted to be able to speak to people on their terms, about their lives. This is as it should be.

Beyond Phoenix, and beyond Spanish, I believe we are uniquely positioned to be multi-lingual. We have the ability to speak to those on the fringe (where many of us, are, frankly, more comfortable). AND we have the ability (if we are willing to claim it) to speak as peers to those in power.

If we, as a faith tradition, are content with being on the fringe, then we might as well write our obituary. Not only will we not be about cultural transformation, but we will have lost our way entirely. Let us instead use our power and privilege in solidarity with those who need it. So many do.

 

Comments redirected to The Lively Tradition.

being part of Christendom, pragmatically speaking.

30 Jul

This is part 2 of a blog exploring Unitarian Universalism’s location in relationship to Christendom (that is, the world of Christianity).  Tom Schade graciously hosted the first part at his blog “The Lively Tradition“.  Since I wrote that first part, I’ve been thinking about the next logical question: So what?  So what if UUs are a part of Christendom?

Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship

One way to address the “So what?” question is to look at what it means internally.  Does being a part of Christendom affect our congregations, our people, our mission?  I believe it does.  I have sometimes heard people describe UU congregations as places where “We welcome people with all sorts of theological beliefs…except Christians.”  Indeed, many of our congregations are hostile places for UU Christians.  This closes these congregations off to religiously liberal people for whom the definition of Christian may be quite broad and inclusive; people who are looking for what we uniquely offer.  Since we have not disassociated ourselves from Christendom, the hypocrisy of these congregations is glaring, and irrational. It is hampering our ability to live our mission. It is hampering our ability to get our saving message to those who so desperately need it.

As an aside: I am sure someone will correct me if I mistaken, but it seems to me that our congregations in the South are a little bit better (on the whole) at welcoming a liberal Christian.  Perhaps it is because of the deeply religious culture that they are surrounded by.  I think this is especially notable, as it is in the South and the Bible Belt in which our congregations are experiencing the most growth…

Getting back to the issue at hand: There are also external ramifications to being a part of Christendom.  For one, it gives us not only the power to critique others who reside in Christendom, it also gives us the authority.  Let me explain with an example.  First Unitarian Universalist Church of New Orleans recently had an encounter with Operation Save America, wherein OSA disrupted First UU’s worship service and harassed the church members.  There is a wonderful interfaith letter written to the New Orleans Advocate about the event.

An OSA member briefly put a YouTube video online, with footage he had shot during the encounter and his rationale for what/why they were doing it.  In it, he shared that they were disturbed that the UU “church” (their quotes, not mine) was actually a cult and was leading children astray, etc, etc.

Now, if we had disassociated ourselves from Christendom, then we could critique their actions and subsequent justification, but it would be coming from an outsider position, speaking mostly to our own experience of the encounter and the pain it caused. It might have power, but it would not have authority. But becuase we have not disassociated ourselves from Christendom, we can stand with both power and authority and firmly say “You do not hold the monopoly on what it means to be Christian. And you behaved in a manner that was decidedly not Christian.”  We can pull rank, as it were, as our faith tradition is older than the belief in the rapture, a hallmark belief of Christian Fundamentalists.

The “So what?” question also leads me to reconsider how our congregations relate to other religious organizations when working for social justice.  I was moved by this year’s Ware Lecturer  Sister Simone Campbell to reconsider my response to an ecumenical organization that had contacted me wondering if the church I serve would be interested in joining with them.  I responded then that since they were not an interfaith organization, I could not in good conscious recommend this to the congregation.  I have since reconsidered and hope to start a conversation with the congregation I serve about joining this organization as soon as I return from my sabbatical.  This ecumenical organization is doing amazingly good work. It is our loss for not participating.  And…

This leads to a final “So what?” So we might be able to change the conversation, provided we stay in it!  Perhaps we can help that ecumenical organization become an interfaith one, but that is not going to happen if we continue to absent ourselves from the conversation.  Unitarian Universalists are notoriously uncomfortable with our  collective privilege.  Being a part of Christendom is a privileged position in this country, so it is not surprising that we have tried to distance ourselves from it. Especially with Christianity becoming synonymous with fundamentalism (something that is driving many Christians crazy).

Those of us who are in places of privilege (or perceived privilege) in our individual lives are learning to use that privilege to be better allies, as is demonstrated in the video below. As a faith tradition, Unitarian Universalists can collectively use our privileged location within Christendom (no matter our personal theological bend) to become a force that cannot help but impact the future of Christendom, and beyond.

That is why it matters.

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