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Plenary II and Open Space Orientation

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General Assembly 2007 Event 2004

Gini Courter, Moderator of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), called the second plenary of the 47th General Assembly (GA) to order at 8:30 a.m. on Thursday, June 21, 2007, in Hall C of the Oregon Convention Center in Portland.

Preliminary Credentials Report

Paul Rickter, Secretary of the UUA, presented the preliminary credentials report. He reported that as of that morning, 574 congregations from all 50 states, the District of Columbia, two Canadian provinces, and Mexico, were present. Total registration was 5464, with 303 of that number registered as youths. A final report will be issued at the close of the General Assembly.

International Guests

Rev. William G. Sinkford, UUA President, informed delegates that many international guests were present at this year's General Assembly, and he invited Rev. Will Saunders from the UUA Board to help welcome the guests. Some are Unitarians and Unitarian Universalists from around the world while others are representatives from movements with whom we have a long history. All the groups, including the UUA, are members of the International Council of Unitarians and Universalists. He stated that Rev. Gordon Oliver of South Africa, current President of ICUU, sent his best wishes and regrets that he cannot be present this year. Sinkford pointed out that the UUA's relationship with the Japanese religious community date back to the presidency of Dana McLean Greeley. "Our differences," Sinkford said, "are far less important than the commitments which bind us together."

The guests introduced were:

  • Rev. Jószef Kászoni, Minister of First Church, Budapest, Hungary
  • Rev. Adrienne Szasz, Minister of Third Church in Budapest (Rev. Szasz attended along with fifteen youth from Budapest who were visiting their partner church, First Unitarian Church in Portland)
  • Mary Bennett, Executive Director of the Canadian Unitarian Council
  • Rev. Petr Dolak Samojsky, Main Minister of the Religious Society of Czech Unitarians
  • Rev. Erika Orbán, the Visiting Balazs Scholar at Starr King School for the Ministry, from Transylvania
  • Rev. Dr. Árpad Szabó, Bishop of the Transylvanian Unitarian Church
  • Masamichi Kamiya, Deputy Director of External Affairs, Rissho Kosei-kai
  • Rev. Kotaro Suzuki, Director Kosei-kai International
  • Rev. Yoshinobu Miyake, Executive Director, Konko Church of Izuo
  • Rev. Takahiro Miwa, Head Priest, Hiyoshi Shinto Shrine, Japan
  • Guji Yukiyasu Yamamoto, the 97th Guji (high priest) of Tsubaki Grand Shrine

Introduction to Open Space

Courter announced that this year General Assembly contains a new venture: the use of Open Space Technology to help the UUA Board find out what GA delegates and members of UU congregations are thinking about. Courter announced that "this year 40% of Plenary time has been cut, and other things changed in order to provide time and space for a three day process of discussion and decision making concerning what should be the mission of the UUA." She introduced Dr. Helen Bishop, the leader of the GA Open Space Team.

Bishop thanked all those working as Open Space team members and volunteers. Given the desire to receive feedback from a large number of persons at GA, the decision was made to use an adaptation of Open Space Technology, based on principles outlined by Harrison Owen. Bishop explained that Owen designed Open Space Technology (OST) when he realized that sometimes the most important work in offices and conferences happens in unscheduled times and places. Some people came early, were prepared, and stayed all the way through, while others moved from room to room, staying only a little in each space. Both types, called bumblebees and butterflies, provided cross fertilization, taking ideas forward. From his observation Owen came up with these principles:

  • Whoever shows up are the right people.
  • Whatever happens is the only thing that could happen.
  • Whenever things start is the right time.
  • When it's over, it's over.

Bishop stated that the 5000+ attendees will get a chance to meet in groups (domains) to advocate for the topics that should be discussed, attend workshops on these topics, and then, through convergence sessions, vote for their top priorities. There will be one other "law" that is applied to Owen's principles, that of personal mobility: that if you discover yourself in the wrong place, it's your responsibility to leave and find the right place.

Bishop explained how the process would work, and that there would be a possibility of 120 formal breakout sessions as defined by the attendees. Each of these workshops will bring forward summaries which will be discussed at convergence meetings, and then each of the domain convergence sessions will put forward three statements articulating what they believe the UUA Board of Trustees should take into account as they work to define the mission of the UUA. Following General Assembly, congregations will receive a report on how these statements were prioritized by the delegates.

Song

Sarah Dan Jones, Music Director of the Northwest Unitarian Universalist Church in Atlanta and 2007 GA Music Coordinator, had the attendees join in singing "Building A New Way," from the 2005 UUA Hymn Supplement, Singing the Journey.

President's Report

Rev. William G. Sinkford began his report by asking, "What does it mean to be a faithful Unitarian Universalist in our time?" He stated that we will be working hard to name our goals, but that mission alone, shared goals alone, are not enough. "Because without a vision," he said, "this faith will perish."

Sinkford then shared his vision for Unitarian Universalism. It is a place where congregations are warm, vital communities where spiritual development is nurtured, where individual and families can't wait for the next time they come to church; where congregations are growing because they have opened their doors to those who yearn for liberal religion; where we aren't afraid to tell people what church we belong to; where we are a powerful voice for liberal religious values; where the inherent worth and dignity of every person is not merely a principle we affirm but the way we live; where love and trust triumph over hatred and fear; and where we know we are better together than we ever could be alone. This, Sinkford said, is what sustains him, and what he believes sustains others, too.

Sinkford said that although he has the rest of his life to live in this faith, he has only two more years as president. "It is only if we commit to a shared vision that we can begin to move toward the Beloved Community that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., envisioned," he said. Later this summer, Sinkford said, he will be "attending the annual meeting of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to be recognized for UU support of Dr. King and to help honor the three martyrs of Selma: Jimmy Lee Jackson, Viola Liuzzo and the Rev. James Reeb." He pointed out that when Dr. King said that the "moral arc of the universe bends toward justice," he was quoting Unitarian Theodore Parker.

What helps us work toward the beloved community are congregations that work together. Sinkford reported on some of the ways in which this work is being realized: through regional growth plans, stewardship roundtables or state-based advocacy networks like the ones in California, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire. Public witness is not only a civic duty, said Sinkford, "but it is a holy one and part of our spiritual engagement with the world. Many of our congregations and their members move easily to social action, and we are becoming more effective. We have protested against the firing of the transgender city manager in Largo, Florida, and our youth traveled to Washington, D.C. to advocate for comprehensive sexuality education." UUs have been active in speaking out against global warming, and on April 17th Sinkford was joined by 17 UU ministers in Washington where over 200 other religious leaders gathered to urge Congress to pass the much needed Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act, known as the "Matthew Shepard Act." This act would recognize crimes based on gender, sexual orientation, gender identity and disability as hate crimes. The delegation was not, Sinkford said, just the "usual suspects," but included Evangelicals, a Southern Baptist leader and even a Catholic spokesman. The bill passed the House of Representatives easily on May 3, and the Senate should be voting on it soon.

Sinkford listed other social justice issues on which the UUA will remain dedicated: a women's right to control her own body and advocacy for marriage equality. He mentioned the recent courageous act of the Massachusetts legislature as they voted to uphold marriage equality, and said that New York 's State Assembly had passed Governor Spitzer's marriage equality bill this week, and that legislation is headed to the state Senate.

What has happened, Sinkford said, is that "religious liberals have allowed their attention to be diverted from the broader questions of war and peace, from environmental justice, from the disaster that is our health care system and from the growing inequality between the rich and poor. Our moral choices matter," he said. By way of example, he cited a document produced by the UUA, showing the "True Cost of War: A Moral Balance Sheet." This document illustrates that the money spent in one week in Iraq could have provided three meals a day for nearly an entire year for 6 million children, the same number that die from hunger and malnutrition every year. For less than the amount spent in one month in Iraq, all of the New Orleans' neighborhoods could be completely rebuilt to standards that would better protect them against another hurricane. With the money spent in Iraq to date, we could have moved into full compliance with all of the Kyoto Protocols on global warming and had $125 billion left over to care for the health, nutrition and education of our children.

Choices matter, Sinkford said, and our voices need to be part of the discourse. "My vision for the future is that we will become a leading voice on a wide spectrum of justice issues in the public square."

"We have responsibilities around the world," Sinkford continued. He reminded delegates that in 2005 the General Assembly passed an Action of Immediate Witness to End Crimes Against Humanity in Darfur. "Since then, we have worked with the UU Service Committee and as part of the Save Darfur Coalition to make our voices heard." He articulated what the UUA is doing and has done to encourage divestment of UUA assets from businesses that support the Sudanese government. First, he said, "our endowment fund is in compliance with the recommendations of the Sudan Divestment Task Force. The Association's retirement plan is administered by Fidelity Investments, and they have significant holdings in two Chinese oil companies whose royalties directly support the Sudanese government. The UUA has been urging Fidelity to divest their holdings. Just weeks ago, the company sold a large proportion of those stocks traded on U.S. stock markets. There is also a new option for international investing through the Fidelity plan that does not include investments that support the Sudanese government, and many participants have transferred assets to that plan."

Sinkford reported that the UUA's financial advisor, Dan Brody, will report that the UUA Health Insurance Plan is operating well within the financial assumptions used in its creation. But, Sinkford stated, that was not the main reason it was created—"it was created to provide access to the too many of our ministers and church employees who did not previously have access to health care." He cited one example from a minister who told how her partner's life was literally saved by having this insurance. Sinkford said that his vision is that adequate health care coverage would be available to all citizens.

Sinkford asked, given the UUA growth rate of only about 1% per year, whether the glass is half full or half empty. His response is that the glass is "simply not full enough." Growth in numbers is important because there are thousands of people yearning for a religion such as ours. We need to open the doors to all those who, quoting the Rev. Barbara Pescan, "are down in the valley, trying to get home. We are in experimental mode in how to support growth and are supporting local initiatives, mid-size mentoring, multi-site congregations, and our experiments with advertising have impressive results."

Reporting on the Kansas City marketing initiative of several years ago, Sinkford said that membership increases rose from 2% prior to the campaign to more than 8% net growth per year after the campaign. Similar growth occurred in Houston the following year, and it is happening now south of Los Angeles where there is a joint advertising campaign underway. The San Francisco Bay Area congregations will be next to support a regional marketing campaign in September.

Sinkford described other initiatives designed to encourage growth and said "the question is not whether we can grow, for we know we can, but whether we will choose to grow."

The most frequent question he is asked, Sinkford said, is "How can we attract more people of color to our church?" He said, "I continue to respond that ‘acquiring' a few more dark faces so white congregations will feel better about themselves is not a spiritually grounded approach." Sinkford said it's been 10 years since the Journey Toward Wholeness—the question is have we bent the arc of the universe long enough in that time.

Sinkford summarized the learnings: that "top down" directives from "Boston" or even General Assembly generate reactivity and resistance; that congregations can and do change; and that from what we have learned from our engaged with and support of bisexual, gay, lesbian, and transgender (BGLT) issues, that education is one way to learn. Forty-five congregations will field test the new curriculum "Building the World We Dream About" next fall. But after decades of commitment there are only thirty UU ministers of color, Latina/o and Hispanic individuals currently serving the Association. During the same time, he said, "we have moved from a handful to a majority of female ministers. The ‘why' of that disparity is complex, but its reality is unavoidable." Our history of supporting ministers of color is "abysmal. It breaks my heart every day," he said.

But there is hope. Sinkford reported, "Today there are forty persons of color, Latina/o, and Hispanic persons actively preparing for our ministry. If we do nothing, he said that he could predict that in ten years half of those ministers will no longer be Unitarian Universalists. In response, the UUA's Diversity of Ministry Team will identify a dozen ministers and seminarians of color with high potential for successful parish ministry, and identify a dozen congregations ready to receive these ministers. They will use all our learnings to help these ministries succeed.

There are other spiritual issues around race to address, he said, such as Truth and Reconciliation within our movement as in South Africa. He related the journey of Rev. David Pettee, UUA Director of Ministerial Credentialing, as he went to Africa to trace the history of his forbears in the slave trade. Pettee, Sinkford said, "has a long and distinguished Unitarian pedigree. Recently, though, Pettee discovered that several of his Rhode Island ancestors had been slave owners, and one a slave trader." Sinkford asked, "Should we collectively acknowledge that some of the beautiful white clapboard Unitarian churches in New England were built with profits from the slave trade? Other groups have begun to engage their histories, and we need to begin this work ourselves," he said.

He asked, "With whom do we need to be reconciled?" In the late 1960s and early 1970s the General Assembly voted to contribute $1,000,000 to black economic development, and to be distributed by black Unitarian Universalists. Only half of the promised money was ever paid. "Doesn't our moral balance sheet still carry an unpaid debt?" Sinkford asked. He pointed out that for many at that time, both black and white, there was a real sense of betrayal. Sinkford said that he left our movement for a time because of this. Yet, he cautioned, "merely writing a check won't heal the wounds. Telling the story—truth to reconciliation—is needed."

Sinkford then moved to recognizing the work of three individuals. Tom Stites, Communications Director, is retiring after ten years of service during which time he was responsible for a complete overhaul of UU World magazine, the launching of InterConnections, uuworld.org, and the UUA's WorshipWeb. Tim Brennan, the new Treasurer for the UUA, is already bringing gifts to his work, and Executive Vice President Kay Montgomery makes, Sinkford said, "my job possible." He also gratefully acknowledged the work of the UUA staff.

Sinkford pointed out that the President is the CEO (Chief Executive Officer) of the UUA, and that part of those responsibilities includes raising funds. "We receive gifts from congregations through the Annual Program Fund (APF) and from individuals through the Friends of the UUA program," he said. Sinkford gave special mention to the Veatch Program at our Shelter Rock congregation for their on-going support of new initiatives. The APF, Friends and endowment income covers the basics, but new initiatives need support from bodies such as Veatch.

But to make such new initiatives core services, special fund raising is sometimes needed. Sinkford announced the launch of the new comprehensive fund raising campaign, Now Is The Time, the largest, most ambitious campaign ever undertaken in the UUA's history. The goal is to raise $20 million in cash and $30 million in planned giving commitments. In planning for the campaign, Sinkford said, "questions have been asked and focus groups held to determine what it is that needs to be funded. The major emphasis has been that UUs feel an urgency about growth. Five areas of emphasis are included: growth in numbers; growth in leadership; growth in diversity; growth in spirit; and growth in witness.

"To date, $14 million in cash and more than $19 million in legacy commitments has been raised—more than $33 million in total." Major donors are coming forward, and Sinkford thanked them as well as the Trustees on the UUA Board and his Leadership Council members, all of whom have made pledges to the campaign. But there will also be a chance, he said, for every UU to give. Through congregations holding special Association Sundays this fall, collections made will go toward the campaign to fund a national advertising and awareness campaign, to support the successful settlement of ministers of color, and to allow the Association to offer growth grants for promising and imaginative new ideas. Sinkford invited people to find out more at the display area and on the UUA's website, and encouraged congregational involvement in Association Sunday.

Quoting W.E.B. DuBois, Sinkford said, "Now is the accepted time, not tomorrow, not some more convenient time. It is today that our best work can be done and not some future day or future year. It is today that we fit ourselves for the greater usefulness of tomorrow." Now is the time, he said, "to hold a vision for what this faith can become; to raise our voices on the side of justice; to share the faith that sustains us; to continue our Journey toward Wholeness; for Truth and Reconciliation; to welcome ministers of color, Latina/o, and Hispanic ministers; to open our doors and our hearts to those we do not yet know. Now is the time to let our hope and our faith lead us into a more abundant future."

Right Relations Team Report

Before calling on the chair of the Right Relations Team, Gini Courter explained details concerning the Statement of Conscience mini-assemblies, and the Actions of Immediate Witness process. She urged delegates who are considering resolutions in response to the reports of officers to speak with her so delegates can know as soon as possible what they will be considering.

Courter then called upon Right Relationship Team Chair Petra Aldrich for a report. Aldrich said that "there are different ways that we take care of each other to try to stay in right relationship. These stories are inspiring and painful." There were two different stories she shared:

"We have every scooter and wheelchair available in Portland. The Accessibilities volunteers are making possible participation in GA for as many people as possible, and congregations back home and their ministers have worked hard to get their people here. But there is also the story of a white middle-aged woman who was approached by police at the mall downtown who wished to help her through construction. Recognizing that close observation by the police might feel different for people of color, she alerted chaplains so that others would understand the police's action." Aldrich reminded attendees of the ways in which Right Relations Team members could be contacted, and thanked delegates for their caring and careful attention to their relationships with other GA attendees.

Courter reminded delegates of the upcoming Open Space Domains and workshops, and declared the Plenary session to be in recess until Friday.

Reported by Lisa Presley; edited by Deborah Weiner.

For more information contact web @ uua.org.

This work is made possible by the generosity of individual donors and congregations. Please consider making a donation today.

Last updated on Thursday, September 8, 2011.

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