"removing barriers to participation in governance". by Rev. Dawn Cooley

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!

Now let’s say that some members of the Evolution Society really don’t want it to evolve. They wantto 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”?


  1. I don't mean to ignore your larger question, but I stopped at--"But a look at the cultural landscape tells us that that fifty years from now, religious life will primarily be lived outside of congregations"--because I question whether that's so.

    I'm not saying it isn't. I am saying at least I don't know that it is. It's at least as likely that congregations will still be the primary location of religious life but that congregations will be very different. How would that affect your larger question?

  2. Anonymous10:13 AM

    Good question, John. There is mixed data on how many people in the US attend church, with polls showing a higher number than actually do. But the number of people in the pews on Sunday morning is, generally, shrinking. An article at Churchleaders.com, which I will link to in a moment, says that "In 2050, the percentage of the U.S. population attending church will be almost half of what it was in 1990."

    So while congregations won't disappear entirely, I think it is safe to say that they will not be the primary way the majority of people choose to practice their religious life. Indeed, some would argue that they are not the primary way now, with fewer than 20% of the population attending on a given Sunday.

    Here is that link: http://www.churchleaders.com/pastors/pastor-articles/139575-7-startling-facts-an-up-close-look-at-church-attendance-in-america.html

  3. I think this is something we can work out, however, it requires working it out. Describing those with doubts as being fearful is not helpful.

  4. It strikes me that your suggestion seems fairly similar to the original structure of the AUA. An organization made up of individual members engaged in direct democratic engagement toward shared ends. It wasn't until much further on in our history that the AUA and it's institutional descendants moved specifically to become an association of congregations.

    That being the case, it seems like it's worth asking of the proposals, what did we learn from that era in our history that is relevant today. What do we learn from WE Channing's "Remarks on Associations?" What do we learn from HW Bellows "The Suspense of Faith?" What do we learn from the intentional ending of individual memberships in the AUA during the late 19th and early 20th centuries?

    And perhaps more importantly than even seeking to understand those parts of our heritage in this modern context, what is to keep people from doing exactly as you suggest without participating the institutional structure of an association or denomination at all? Our religious fore-bearers who came to New England in the 1620's and 1630's didn't tie themselves to a larger entity, they gathered in houses and halls and "gadded about" as AB Wesley has so well reminded us.

    Is there anything today that prevents the emergence of Unitarian Universalist faith communities that resemble those of yesteryear, people gathered together in covenant and only lightly engaged in anything larger than their particular parish? If someone wanted to start a house church could they not download or buy virtually every product of the UUA without restriction (Sexuality and Our Faith slides noted as an exception)? If a group gathered together and established that they would meet at a coffeehouse each Tuesday afternoon or Saturday morning or Sunday night and call themselves a Unitarian Universalist community, do our copyrights and trademarks prevent them from doing so? Is there an impediment that I am yet unaware of?

    Do you see my question? As much as we make of the UUA, and it has immense value, why do we assume that to be an authentically Unitarian Universalist organization you must participate in the Association? I'm afraid I don't know where to look to find out how many of the new church plants that occur in our country each year are denominationally supported, but my impression of the biggest and most well known churches in our country today is that many of them are specifically non-denominational. Is our free faith truly a faith of the free, or is it restricted to those who would bind themselves not only to their local community, but to the very kind of association that Channing warned against?

    And perhaps the root of my question is in your closing quotation of the global ends- is working "in a manner which assures institutional sustainability" really compatible with a faith that encourages leaders to emerge and grow in their particular settings and let those old ways that no longer serve die away in their time? Is a focus on institutional sustainability at every level hindering our ability to partner with the experiments of our faith? Experiments that might let that which is waiting to emerge from the rich soil of our free faith?

  5. Anonymous4:30 PM

    Eric, yes, yes, and more yes! I think that, were I to have seen in the board materials a way for a small, covenanted community to join the UUA, that I would not necessarily have gone to the extreme of wondering about individuals. But the suggestion was that these communities be recognized but not given a vote. That is what got me wondering from the beginning. What if they WERE given a vote? What if EVERYONE were given a vote?

    I am not sure I am advocating this position, but I do know that how we define and understand ourselves has changed over the years. Indeed, it has to change and evolve over time. I suspect that we are in one of those times - where we need to look at our options, break out of the mold if it is holding us back, and be willing to playfully experiment. If we want to bring more people to the table, this is one way to do it.

    As to the quotation of the ends, I cringed at the "assures institutional sustainability" part, personally, until someone explained that in PG, that is the answer to "at what cost" part of a global end. Not that this made it all better, but it shifted how I think the Board thinks about it. Not that institutional sustainability is the goal, but that it is the cost.

  6. Jamie H-R10:29 AM

    For me, the big questions about this vision of post-congregational UU are will there be professional ministry (or what replaces it)? what replaces weekly communal RE? and what replaces weekly communal worship?

    Those seem to me to be the primary ways that UU is taught and sustained over time.

    I understand the idea of trying to get ahead of the curve on all these changes, but my gut feeling is that while we wrestle with these questions it is not desirable to actively speed up the decentralizing, de-institutionalizing forces that are already in play. So I would be concerned about moving to direct democracy and individual membership in the UUA.

  7. Another related question to pose ... Why restrict major governance decisions to once a year?

    For decades, the way the UUA handled decisions affecting the entire Association was to wait a year for General Assembly to come around, send delegates from congregations, and vote on it. Even more restrictive, the Board and staff set up structures to weed out certain options, until the delegates at GA were given one or two options to vote on.

    First off, as you pointed out, our technology allows for widespread discourse on any given issue.

    Second, we persist in clinging to "first-past-the-post" voting systems, whereby people cast a ballot for one choice out of two or more, instead of adapting more inclusive methods like instant runoff voting and/or simple transferable vote.

    Third, not everything requires a majority vote. Rather than insist that everyone vote on one issue a year for the entire association to read about and consider actions, allow different groups to put forward their issues, attract concerned individuals, and coordinate meaningful action.

    Democracy isn't just about voting, whether by delegates or citizens. It's about participation in governance.

  8. Anonymous9:21 AM

    Desmond, good point. There is no reason we could not have mini-assemblies online whenever issues come up and need discussion and decision. There is an ease, though, in having such events regularly scheduled - either monthly or annually.

    As to the question of voting, I agree that is only one part of democracy. However, as it is now one's delegate status does not prohibit one from participating in the other areas of governance - one can serve in a variety of capacities as well as share their thoughts, options, concerns in mini-assemblies. Indeed, I don't even think you have to be a delegate to speak from the microphone at General Assembly, so really it is just the voting aspect that non-delegates are shut out from.


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

the difference between "principles' and "virtues"

Starting a Discussion about Multi-partner relationships

Reflection on Merger (Dialectical Theology Part 8 of many)

Denise Levertov's Poem about Thomas

What's In Our DNA (Dialectical Theology, part 7 of many)