Direct Democracy and UUA “Citizenship” by Rev. Dawn Cooley

I continue to play with the idea of direct democracy and how it might be applied to our Unitarian Universalist Association. There have been 3 assumptions driving my ideas:

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.

My first post on the subject was a thought experiment that engaged the idea that direct democracy might be possible and the benefits it could bring. The second post was about how participation in a UU covenanted community would be one criteria of how to determine “UU Citizenship.”

So what might other criteria for “citizenship” be? Let's add one more assumption:

Assumption #4: One-size-fits-all solutions don't really fit everyone.

With this assumption as an addition to the other three, I propose that we could create several different categories, with individuals being able to choose a subset in which to engage in order to achieve UUA “citizenship”.

For instance, there might be these three categories:
1) Participation in a UU Covenanted Community
2) Financial Contribution to the UUA (at some capacity, tbd)
3) Volunteering 40+ hours per year to the UUA (including regions & districts)

In order to achieve the bar of citizenship, one might need to achieve 2/3 of these categories. Or perhaps #1 would be required and then a choice of #2 or #3. So I might participate in a UU Covenanted Community and then also volunteer on a UUA committee.

It might also be that we have additional criteria and requirements. We are limited only by our imagination.

The central core of this idea is that there would be a list of potential qualifications from which an individual could choose a smaller subset in order to achieve the bar of “citizenship”.

In addition to the benefits already discussed in previous blogs, this methodology for defining citizenship would encourage people to get engaged at the district/regional/national level. With so many of our folks disconnected from such issues, this could be a great advantage to engaging around the issues with which our faith tradition struggles.

Of course, we would need to make sure the bar is high enough that a whole bunch of counter-UU types can't infiltrate the Association and take over – I know this was (is?) a worry for some of our congregations. I have confidence we could find a way to set the bar high enough without being so high as to become a barrier to participation, as well as put in proper precautions to prevent such an occurance.

Some of you might be saying “That is a whole lot to keep track of!” Since I come from a database and programming background prior to going into ministry, I think it is doable and that we should be tracking most of this type of information anyway! Particularly if the UUA were to recommend and provide standardization to covenanted communities for data management, tracking this information could be the least of our worries.

Another objection might be centered around technology from a different perspective: How would we allow these thousands of folks to participate at General Assembly? Technology for offsite participation in our governance is not quite there yet, that is true. But it will be soon – sooner, probably, than we could put this system in place and implement it. And of course, the structure of General Assembly would have to change. Instead of mini-assemblies on-site, for instance, such conversations should be taking place online in the weeks and months leading up to GA, possibly using the same teleconferencing software with which so many of us are rapidly becoming familiar. Possibly even using something akin to the flipped classroom model.

I continue to get more and more excited about this possibility and would love to talk to more of you about it. In the coming months, I hope to be engaging in online conversations about these ideas. If you want to participate in such a conversation, let me know! I look forward to some robust and exciting conversations around what future of participation in our faith tradition might look like.


  1. How do we balance individual citizen participation with our current structure as "an association of congregation"?

    I'd suggest the use of "double majority" referenda, as an alternative to (or even replacement of) General Assembly resolutions. Thus a resolution would require ratification by a majority of congregations, representing a majority of the total individual membership.

    So let's say Resolution A gets the support of a slim majority of congregations, but all of them very small; it would not pass, because it doesn't represent the majority of individual UUs.

    But if Resolution B gets a majority of congregations of various sizes, and the total membership of those congregations equals a majority of the total UUA individual membership, it would pass.

    This change would, of course, raise some valid questions. How long might a resolution remain alive for congregations to vote on? If a resolution is defeated, how long before it may be proposed again? If congregations approve slightly amended versions of a proposal, how do they reconcile the differences?

    But I think the overall premise would a good start for discussion. It works for Switzerland, so I don't see why it shouldn't work for the UUA.

  2. Anonymous10:01 AM

    I like that idea of congregational ratification. That would definitely be a way to involve more people, though I suspect it would substantially slow down the process. We would need to have a way to act quickly, as well, if we went that direction.

    As to the "Association of Congregations", at its 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). So I think it would be not so far afield as it may originally sound if we decided to move in that direction again.


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