Recovenanting Task Force Report
People have asked where they could get a copy of the ReCovenanting Task Force Report. Until it is published in the proceedings of the GA, enjoy this copy of it in draft form. The actual delivery may have been slightly different.
Report of Re-Covenanting Task Force
Delivered by Rev. Susan Ritchie, accompanied by Kathy Burek, Rev. David Miller and myself.
General Assembly, New Orleans
June 22, 2017
On October 15, 2015, Moderator Jim Key called for the Board to consider ‘how we might imagine moving from the notion of membership to covenant’.
“let’s imagine, rather than signing the book, people entered and were welcomed into a covenant that could be renewed periodically. Imagine if congregations entered and were welcomed into covenant with the larger association that would be renewed periodically. Perhaps this is an approach that would energize our movement….”
Jim Key proposed a Task Force, to be led by Rev. Dr. Susan Ritchie to take up this initiative. We are that Task Force, and we are here to report to you our thinking and progress and to make a proposal for your consideration: a proposal that we think will help move our association and congregations in the direction of greater mutual cooperation and accountability, and toward greater enthusiasm and commitment to our shared work.
The question that we felt that we needed to answer first was “what is this covenant?” that we are being asked “to enter into and periodically renew”, to use Jim Key’s phrase.
That covenant must be more than a set of carefully chosen words that we periodically recite, like the pledge of allegiance.
That covenant must be more than agreement between us to treat each other with respect. It must be an agreement between ourselves and something larger than ourselves.
That “something larger” is a compact between ourselves and the work we share in the world: our mission. Not our mission statement, but our mission.
We were inspired by the work of the American Baptists who engage in a form of collective discernment they call “the mission table.” The Baptists have a simple clarity of their overall mission, “spread the gospel of Jesus Christ”, which is different than the way that we would express our work. However, they have a vigorous process of discerning how each entity in their world can work together through their work to fulfill their collective mission. They sit at “the mission table” and discuss their work, their challenges and obstacles, their strengths and capabilities, and align their work together.
Upon reflection, the task force has come to understand that for Unitarian Universalists to genuinely covenant together, they would be engaging together in theological reflection—broadly defined to include humanism, atheism, and agnosticism--to determine the why, what,and how of our shared work as a religious movement. To covenant is to commit to that engagement and to agree to be mutually accountable to what comes of it. We do not renew our covenant periodically but continuously.
Our response to Jim Key’s invitation “to imagine moving from the notion of membership to covenant” is to imagine all Unitarian Universalists, in all our forms, actively building mutual accountability to our collective discernment of what Unitarian Universalism is called to do in the world at the time. Covenanting is discerning together and being accountable to our mission.
It’s fairly basic, doesn’t it?
People joining together, agreeing on a mission and purpose, and being accountable to each other to fulfill it.
Why would the task force feel that what we are proposing is not what is already happening. After all, aren’t our congregations having regular congregational meetings? Don’t we take lots of votes here at General Assembly? Don’t we elect our President and Moderator?
Elections and debates are insufficient to generate the discernment of mission we seek. Unitarian Universalism seems by its structures and processes to sideline theological reflection and keep mutual accountability to our mission at minimal levels. From top to bottom, Unitarian Universalism is a membership organization, with minimal expectations of each other. The result is a half-hearted religious movement.
The way we do things are the result of the values that were important to our forerunners.
The UUA is organized as standard non-profit enterprise. The standard non-profit organization structure, first evolved in the early 19th century, was itself a copy of the business corporation, and specifically, a small New England business corporation that saw virtue in consolidating power to a limited number of patrons. The 1825 establishment of the AUA was very much a part of this milieu (see The Transformation of Charity in Postrevolutionary New England by Conrad Edick Wright), and while there have been many changes since that time some core patterns of distributing power remain the same. Indeed, in many ways the UUA maintains much of the structure given it by Samuel Atkins Eliot (American Unitarian Association President, 1900-1927; some even call the UUA the “House that Sam built”). Eliot did work to deliberately match the AUA organization with that of business models, especially in terms of disempowering the Board, along the lines of successful “banks, insurance companies, and mills.” Of course, in doing so, he was also bringing the AUA even more in line with how wealthy New England families were accustomed to running New England charities.
Our structures inexorably reduce discussion of our mission and of the work of the Association, into the business of the Association. How can we discern together what the world needs from us, and what we have to offer the world, if when we come together we meet as shareholders in a non-profit corporation, to hear reports, to elect pre-selected slates of candidates, and line up at pro and con microphones for resolutions that do not address the fundamental questions of our mission? The way we do our business inevitably keeps us focused on technical issues, rather than the adaptive issues that really challenge us.
Our present structures, ways of relating, ways of talking together are structures which maintain the supremacy of white, middle and upper class, male elites within Unitarian Universalism.
The Task Force has come to the conclusion that if Unitarian Universalists are to fully covenant with each other, we need a different way of being together.
Fortunately, our history has examples of more substantive ways of coming together: specifically, the General Conference.
Both the Unitarians and the Universalists, like almost all denominations, have historically had two wings, the administrative and ecclesiastical bodies. Traditionally, administrative wings are responsible for providing services to the congregations and to the larger world on behalf of the congregations such as the congregations cannot practicably assume themselves. The ecclesiastical body is an intentional community of delegates who come together for the mutual strengthening of the congregations, the creation of relationships of mutual aid and accountability, and theological discernment. The ecclesiastical body is responsible for discerning the religious movement’s ultimate and broad purpose. Ultimately, the ecclesiastical body asks and discerns answers to the question: “what is the purpose of Unitarian Universalism in these times?”
A General Conference is an ecclesiastical meeting of delegates from congregations, covenanted communities and trans-congregational organizations that represent historically marginalized UU’s. These general conferences should be smaller than our current General Assembly, so that meaningful discussions can be held. We might, for example, limit congregations and organizations to a small number of delegates. Every effort should be made to make these conferences affordable, so that attendees are not limited to older people of means. Further, so that these conferences can build for the future of our movement, we should actively engage youth, young adults, UUs of color, and other historically under-represented groups. The conferences should engage in one or two large questions in depth over the course of several days. It should be without activities that not directly advance the focused conversation.
The Task Force welcomes feedback from all UUs. To that end, we have been reaching out to all of the identity and professional groups we know of to hear what you all have to say. We invite you to talk with us here at GA, or to email your comments to
Summary Recommendation: The Task Force recommends that the UUA Moderator call for a General Conference of Unitarian Universalists as soon as possible and no later than the fall of 2018, for the purposes of exploring what the UUA is called to be and to do in today’s world. We further recommend that the Unitarian Universalist Association schedule general conferences on a regular basis, perhaps in biennial rotation with General Assembly business sessions. Prior to merger in 1961, both the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church in America separated the business meetings from ecclesiastical gatherings that fostered deeper discernment of the underlying theology and philosophies of the respective movements. These conferences were unfortunately abandoned at the time of consolidation. The Task Force believes it is time to bring them back. Further, the Task Force believes that the organization DNA of the UUA be re-assessed given the racist, sexist, and class biases that formed and which are reinforced by our structure, precluding the full realization of covenantal relationships.