General Assembly, Class Bias and a Democratic Faith

Registration and Housing reservations for General Assembly opened the other day, which signals the start of the annual discussion of how expensive General Assembly is, and how ordinary people cannot attend because it costs too much. The search for an alternative plan is on, and while the posse is mounting up to chase the unicorn, I have a few thoughts.

And no, I don't believe that the solution is to do away with General Assembly altogether. Yes, I am in favor of having it every other year,if only for the reason that it would give us more time between these discussions. But then I hear that if we have GA every other year, on the off year, we can all gather for some other great purpose -- another Justice GA like 2012 -- which will also be too expensive, so why bother?

The unicorn we are hunting is some magic bullet which will make GA a cheap bargain that more people can attend. It will always cost more than many people can afford, and some of those people will let us know their disappointment.

Let's question the premise: who should go to General Assembly? Our current system is that any UU who wants to and can afford to should go. We take pride in how many people come.

It's not a good system. It's not democratic, except in the most individualistic sense that any one should be free to make their own choices and to make their own voice be heard. It prioritizes self-expression. And when you prioritize self-expression, inclusivity follows along as its corollary. (If going to GA is the way you express your commitment to UUism, then it follows that everyone who wants to make that self-expression should be able to do so, and that all barriers and obstacles to it should be minimized.)

It's a middle-class presumption that every member of a religious faith should be able to attend the national convention of their faith. It presumes that most of the members of the faith are upper middle class and have the resources to do so. If UUism was not such a comparatively wealthy faith, such a goal would never occur to us. I am sure that many denominations of our size, but with less wealth, do not assume that every member of every congregation should be able to go to their national convention.

 And as the middle class is squeezed out, and as UU congregations become more representative of their surrounding communities, the goal of a General Assembly cheap enough to be affordable by any UU who wants to attend becomes more and more unicornish.

We do not become less class-biased by subsidizing poor and working class people to participate as though they were upper middle class. We become less class-biased by structuring our work so that poor and working class people can participate as they are. Unitarian Universalism should be a democratic faith not because any member can go to General Assembly, but because every member votes for and instructs their delegates to the highest governing body of the Association.

General Assembly needs to be cut back to a shorter working convention that does the business of the Association. Who should go? Elected delegates and religious professionals. Churches and congregations are responsible for the costs of their delegations, not in the form of scholarships and subsidies to some, but as a standard practice for all.  (Systems can be devised that share resources between congregations to even out disparities.)

All of the other functions of GA -- the socializing, the educational events and trainings, should be driven down to regional, district, cluster and on-line venues, so they are more accessible and affordable to more rank and file UU's.


  1. So basically the model of the UCC's General Synod.

  2. Barbro Hansson3:27 PM

    I particularly appreciate and like your italized paragraph because it contains a profound message about perspective. Thank you Tom.

  3. Anonymous1:21 PM

    Lucy Ijams: I agree that the socializing, the educational events and trainings, should be driven down to regional, district, cluster and on-line venues, so they are more accessible and affordable to more rank and file UU's.

    However, in my experience, precious few will attend these events, especially now that we are "regionalized." But even if something is offered relatively close by, folks won't go. Maybe I need to do a better job with associational connection and identity.

  4. Guess we're on opposite sides again.

    As someone who is constantly one of 5 or 6 people of color at UU meetings that aren't GA (and 5 or 6 is a lot unless one is in Metro New York or the D.C. area), the last thing that needs to happen is for more UU things to become regional or local.

    But I think there is a difference between class issues and economic issues. UUism has plenty of class issues, but GA isn't one of them. Wanna know why? Every black denomination (with the exception of the AMEs I think) meets in much the same manner as UUs. Yet, on average, members of those denominations are much poorer than the average UU---in terms of both income and wealth.

    Complaining about GA is just another consequence of how UUs look at, and deal with, things church. There's a reason that many UU churches struggle when it comes to money. Most of it is cultural; members of liberal denominations give less money to their churches yet expect the same level of bang-for-the-buck. Some of it is change in financial circumstances.

    My aunt, who is a youth director in the National Baptist Convention, will be going to her national convention not long after GA. I have never heard her talk about how much it costs to go. She is not independently wealthy; she is a retired elementary school teacher. Yet church is important to her. She saves her money to go to annual convention every year.

    There are ways to go to GA and not spend a ton of money. I do it every year. I do it because it gets damn lonely being a member of a marginalized group in the UUA and GA is the only place where there is a critical mass of people who look a lot like me. To change GA would make things that much more lonely for a lot of people like me.

    GA is not a class issue. It's an economic one. And it's one can be worked on.

  5. Kim, I am quite surprised to hear what you say about predominantly black denominations doing their national convention in the same way that we do. And you make a good point that people who are highly committed are willing to spend more money without complaining than those who are not. Nonetheless, I am not convinced that rationing by cost is the best way to select who goes and doesn't go.

  6. Their are small constituencies that can never achieve critical mass without gathering nationally But we would save a lot of money if we convened those constituencies as part of our understanding of overcoming the dominate monoculture. Agree with Kimberly that regional meetings won't meet my need for depth of community, but then does GA. We are so busy that we get a few meetings at most and hang around tables in the expo hall.

    Governance could be done on line. Conferring and synod theologizing could be done with prepared conferences that are subsidized. Constituencies could be brought together in a camp for a lot less money.

    But GA makes a profit that supports the other travel and meetings that the UUA does. The cost of GA is borne mainly by the attendees not the UUA budget,

  7. Totally agree with your solution. Just business Thursday - Sunday and congregations pay the way! I would also like to see all session streamed live so congregants can monitor and send input to their delegates.

  8. As a former member of the GA Planning Committee, I think there is something that needs to be more widely known.

    GA breaks even/turns a small profit because of non-delegates. GA would lose money every year if it weren't for the fact that more non-delegates attend than delegates (even in election years). So in re-imagining GA, one has to look at the needs that GA is fulfilling in those non-delegates.

    But the other thing that needs to be recognized; it's not necessarily true that the more "local" you make an event, the more people will come. Quite often, the reverse is true.

  9. Having never been to GA, I'm probably not in the best position to comment, but I wonder how well regional meetings would work at least in areas where UUs are thin on the ground? Would a region be Michigan or the Upper Midwest? If Michigan were the region would it end up being essentially a meeting of the few largish congregations (Ann Arbor & Birmingham and maybe Lansing) with much less input from the much smaller churches. If it were the Upper Midwest, and were held say in Minneapolis or Milwaukee, wouldn't that still create expense issues related to travel and lodging for folks coming from Michigan or Ohio (or for folks from Minnesota/Wisconsin if held in Detroit or Columbus?).

  10. Kate Rohde1:23 AM

    "unicornish"? My favorite new adjective!

    Pete has a point. For someone living in Austin, TX a convention in Portland, OR isn't substantially more expensive than one in New Orleans. We could cut GA costs by holding them in cheap cities with good air fares and a variety of budget options for eating and lodging. Not that I don't think changes might well be made for other reasons, but this one doesn't really make sense to me.


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