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