Report from UUA Task Force on Covenanting to UUA Board

I have been serving on a little task force called forth by Jim Key and chaired by Susan Ritchie on reimagining the UUA organizing principles and methods. It's all very blue-sky and out there, but it has been a chance to step back and re-think that which seems permanent and unchangeable. The task force has met a couple of times and read some things together.  Yesterday, Rev. Ritchie presented our very first report to the Board, a kind of progress report showing what we are thinking about.

I have reprinted the report below, with some trepidation. My observation is that most UU's are very much in favor of changing the UUA in general, but respond to even the smallest suggestion of a particular change with great suspicion. Even redesigning a logo can generate a lot of negative reaction. I think lots of people really want a well-hidden and barely noticeable change that will generate a lot of money, plenty of new members, and a way to resolve the humanist-theist debate that brings peace and lets them win.

So, take a deep breath, remember that this is just some exploratory thinking, and think about this:


  1. Kim Hampton6:15 PM

    Interesting. Really interesting that you all looked at the ABCUSA model.

    There's a big difference between UUism and AB-ism (aside from their size): ABs have an articulated theology--even though there is a wide variation of belief amongst individual ABs. Most non-clergy (and other religious professional) UUs have a real problem with the word theology.

  2. Wow, this looks really interesting! Much more engaging and I think a great start. The second to last paragraph had me all excited! I think I might try something like that at my church. :-) I'm fascinated with structure and governance and how we might do things differently. Your thoughts and that of the taskforce are creative and well thought out. Well done!

  3. Steve Cook10:21 PM

    Firstly, Tom, I offer my thanks to you and the others on the task force for doing this work. One of the things I've always appreciated about you is your ability to translate "Wonk Speech" into clear, vivid English. Would you be willing to take a crack doing that with this document? I'd like to know more about what you are proposing (are you proposing anything, I'm not sure) because I think it's important. Thanks.

  4. Steve, there is a lot of ideas here, and no real proposal yet. But I think the most provocative idea is that we imagine organizing ourselves by agreements around shared missions. These agreements (covenants) would be multiple, overlapping, temporary and involve all kinds of organizations, bodies and individuals as mission partners. Those missions would partial as well.

    I share a half a dozen significant missions with other UU's: showing up for racial justice, increasing strategic discussion among UU's, making our formation process cheaper and shorter, ministerial collegiality, promoting more giving, promoting social media use etc. In every one of these missions, there are many mission partners for that, some in local congregations, whole congregations, in groupings formally known as independent affiliates, groups of ministers. Those shared missions are where I am willing to work and even be accountable.

    There are dozens of other missions that people in UUland share, to which I am not so committed, even though they are good good things. One of those good good things I am less connected to now is offering excellent worship to my local community. It used to be my number one mission.

    What if we shifted the bones of our organizational structure toward these groups sharing a mission, rather than congregations. I can't quite see how that actually works yet, but I think it is worth trying to imagine. It would mean that we would measure our growth as strength and size of the people sharing a mission, not necessarily people joining a local congregation and how many congregations have affiliated with the UUA.

  5. Steve Cook1:05 PM

    Thank you, Tom, that's helpful. These ideas certainly seem to tend toward the demise of anything like a denomination. I don't know why we would need such a thing (as we currently know it.) What glues any of these various interest groups together? Why would I care to see time, money, recognition or effort given to groups that don't share my particular mission--other than to wish them well, as I might wish Save The Children well, or any other non-UU meliorative effort? I'm sure thought will be given to this as your work develops.

  6. Rev. Paul Langston-Daley1:16 PM

    Thanks Tom, to you, and all those on the committee. This is exciting to me and offers a real model of interdependece and interconnection that so many congregations are lacking. I have served many UU congregations that were highly isolated, some by choice, some by geography. I am excited to see congregations moving towards more mutual cooperation and this structure seems like it would support continued growth and movement towards connections and collaborations not just with other UU's but with interfaith partners and organizations. This is were real power is tapped.

  7. I'm struck that so much of this is still focused at the General Assembly, which is still so far out of reach for most individual UUs. The vision seems to be for a bottom-up structure, which is what we're supposed to be already, but when the important conversations happen at meetings that only a few can afford to get to... Well. Not much change happening there.

  8. Good work - look forward to seeing more as things develop!

  9. Anonymous10:32 PM

    I'm sitting in a room with two other gray-haired UU's, all logged into your blog. The first thing I hear from both of them is: "I can't read it! How do I make it bigger?" Of course I suggested "do the command+ thing on your Mac", but then the complaint was it's fuzzy. Can you offer the report up in some other fashion to make it more accessible? A PDF? Other tips?

  10. for anyone who finds it hard to read, go directly to the original site:

  11. for anyone who finds it hard to read, go directly to the original site:

  12. Anonymous10:50 AM

    Thanks for the link to the PDF Tom. This solves the readability problem. Interestingly, I did try searching for it on, and was unable to find it there... Which says something about the search tools in use (or my skills...).

  13. I love this. I've participated in gatherings organized along this principle, and found them to be hugely helpful. I think of it as "change via creating a perfect soup for interconnection and spreading of stuff" rather than "change via all choosing a direction and going that way". I've seen this approach do amazing things, and am utterly convinced of it's utility and flexibility into the future.

    What I'm less sure about is whether or not we can steer the whole ship in this direction. I'd be delighted to see something like you describe for a GA, but I'm not entirely optimistic. I've seen the approach work well in groups that have a majority of people who are culturally familiar with that way of working--when transplanted to large groups that don't have that practice, it tends to struggle because there aren't enough people who "get" it. GA would be a tough nut to crack... lot's of institutional practice, history, and interest.

    Facebook is, interestingly, a forum that is very well suited to this. We see groups cropping up all the time that do just what you describe--organize around mission. I don't know the UUA well (I'm Canadian), so I don't know if this is already integrated into it's structure and everybody knows where the groups are and how to get involved?

    Don't get me wrong--I think this is a great direction and would attend such a GA with unrestrained joy... I'm just suggesting that if that proves hard to push through, an alternative to convincing the institution to change is to build-it-and-they-will-come right in their back yard, and then move the people over once everyone sees how it works (I'm speaking metaphorically here, not literally. Big shloop on the front of GA does not seem like a good idea to me).

  14. I am curious as to how we sustain a congregation or an organization (like the UUA) through transitions in mission & vision. I suspect that we have to covenant to be part of a community that moves through and with missions that change over time. We need to be mission driven, yes, to provide purpose and direction in a given moment in time. But times change, and missions must change, too. And yet the congregation I serve is 140 years old - it has lived through many missions. I hope that it is sustained, not for the sake of itself, but for the sake of the future missions that will need a strong community in which to take hold and live and move. We are here when needed, in many different ways. If we are only agreeing to stay together because of the mission, what happens when the mission changes? It reminds me of those wedding vows from the 70's that changed "as long as we both shall live" to "as long as we both shall love" - those were "mission-driven marriages". It seems like an invitation to abandon ship as soon as disagreement or the need for change arises. We need something sticky, something that is both of this moment and of the future moments, to bind us together. I don't think it can only be a shared sense of mission.


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