by Maggie Lovins, UUA Southern Region Congregational Life staff
With the current election cycle coming to a close, the divisiveness in our nation’s politics, and gridlock in Washington, talk of democracy is everywhere. It has been a topic of conversation in the news, social media, and in our congregations, as well. I have conversations with our congregational leaders quite often about what it means to be a representative democracy. I am often asked how the Fifth Principle, “The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large,” applies to congregational life. To have a voice and be heard, to feel a part of the decision making process, and to have a vote in our church home are key components of our polity for sure, but what that really means can be fuzzy around the edges. Sometimes we forget to apply relationship to the equation. Our Principles are not "siloed" statements; they are meant to go hand in hand, much like nesting bowls. They build upon one another, and should not be selected individually to suit our agenda of the day, or we can miss the beauty, depth and meaning in the full message.
Our congregational polity states that our congregations are self-governing and set their own bylaws, policies and procedures, but there are always questions and struggles around board authority and decision-making. So tell me if you have heard something like this, “Well, I didn’t vote on that! Who made that decision?” or “Who gave them the authority to make that decision?” I bet most of you have heard that in your congregations about one thing or another. Sometimes it’s a really small thing like rearranging the chairs of the sanctuary or changing the brand of coffee being served, something slightly bigger like changing the color of a wall, or maybe even a big thing like professional ministry or a second service. No matter what the issue is, I’m willing to gamble that you have uttered or heard some combination of those words. Queries like those beg the question---where is the relationship in statements like that? Where is the trust that we are all serving our congregation's mission and moving toward the building up of beloved community?
I often see leaders try to ‘fix’ an adaptive relational issue with a technical solution, AKA a vote. Voting around an adaptive issue only polarizes the situation. If you have 50% that wants to paint the fellowship hall yellow, and 50% that wants it painted blue and you put it to a vote, what do you think will happen? Maybe by some strange happenstance you get a winner by a vote or two, but there will still be many members with very hurt feelings who are left feeling unheard. Yes, you might have a resolution, but no relationship. As I am known to repeat often, it’s all about our relationships! How will you reestablish communication between those two groups? How could this issue have been rectified before coming to this division of people who love each other? A few conversations around why the yellow paint people are so passionate about their choice of color might have been a good start. And what about the blue paint people? Why are they so passionate about their choice of color? There is a chance that the blue walls might make the yellow paint people feel closed in. Or maybe the yellow walls cause a glare that hurt the blue paint people’s eyes with the florescent lights in the room. I’m willing to bet there is a solution here that doesn’t involve a vote! Changing out the light bulbs to a softer tone might help the blue paint people adjust their eyes better to the yellow walls, or changing the shade of blue would make the room feel bigger to the yellow paint people. You will never know that if all you do is put it to a vote.
We are the people of democracy, but a representative democracy, which means we must have faith in and trust those who we vote into our church leadership to represent the whole of the membership. This is especially hard when we are so very discouraged by what our leaders are, or are not, doing on the national stage. Serving your congregation is hard work; I thank you for giving of your time and talent! For those courageous enough to step up to the call of service the least we can do is empower them to do the job we have elected them to do---lead us to the betterment of our congregational mission. You cannot vote a relationship in to being; you can only work on it a piece at a time, day by day. This is what it is to be in covenantal relationship.
Theodore Parker said, ‘Democracy means not “I am as good as you are,” but “You are as good as I am.” I would like us all to remember our leaders come from a place of congregational greatest good. Our leaders want the greatest good for their members and for our faith just like we do. Why else would they serve? If you don’t feel that your leaders are moving your congregation in that direction then there is always the next election cycle to voice your opinion via your vote. Democracy and voting cannot ‘fix’ a relational issue; only genuine conversation and deep listening can heal a divide and find a way forward.
Please don’t beat up your leaders with the Fifth Principle, or use it as a bullying stick! Instead, support the greatest Faith we can imagine by supporting and empowering your elected leaders to lead you and your congregation in to the next phase of being. And to our leaders---lead us! If you are working for the greatest good of the mission, you have nothing to fear. Be bold, and lead us in to the next stage of building the beloved community!
With Gratitude and Appreciation,
Sunday, November 16, 2014
Monday, November 3, 2014
by The Reverend Kenneth Gordon Hurto, Southern Region Lead Executive
Light of Ages and of Nations by Samuel Longfellow, 1860
“New occasions teach new duties; Time makes ancient good uncouth;
They must upward still, and onward, who would keep abreast of Truth.”
The Present Crisis by James Russell Lowell, 1845
These two poems are part of our musical tradition. They appeared at a time when the nation was needing to face the tyranny of slavery and envision a new America, a land where all would be free.
About that time, another Unitarian, Emerson, wrote in his essay Nature, “the sun shines today also.” He was concerned with “hand-me-down” religion. In that same vein, another Unitarian Transcendentalist, Theodore Parker preached eloquently distinguishing between the “Transient & Permanent” in religion, arguing how we live is the true test of any religion. Together, they argued that we not become captive to out-dated ideas and forms, but keep always open to new possibility.
“Revelation is not sealed” is the 1st of the Smooth Stones characterizing the Free Church. This is true for you and me personally. We are souls-growing, ever maturing in our understanding of what truly matters.
Likewise for institutions. If our forms and procedures are not to calcify into the seven last words of a dying institution (“we have always done it this way”), we need to embrace change in all its opportunity and its anxiety and confusion.
Change is certainly afoot around our UUA and in the four Districts of the Southern Region. New occasions certainly do teach new duties. Over the next few months, our District Boards will offer recommendations for restructuring how we do our work together in the Southern Region. Congregational representatives will decide on those ideas at concurrent Annual Assemblies of the Districts to be held the third weekend in April, 2015 (17th to 19th) in Greensboro, NC, Montgomery, AL, New Orleans, LA and Orlando, FL. The Reverend Jeanne Pupke, senior minister of the 1st Unitarian Universalist Church in Richmond, VA, and former UUA Trustee, will be our keynote speaker.
Our District Leaders have been working carefully since the adoption of the “Orlando Platform” in December, 2010. This document put into words a heartfelt desire — after nearly 50 years since the UUA’s founding — to rethink how District ministries with congregations could make better use of our resources and tap the creative love of our volunteers for growing our faith.
Since then, there have been many institutional and management changes:
- The Boards have consolidated all programmatic and financial operations into one Southern Region. Each Board has been reduced from as many as 14 members to 5. The four Presidents, along with the Regional Lead, serve as an executive committee for the Region.
- The professional field staff are now fully UUA employees, supervised and accountable to the Director of Congregational Life and the UUA Ends. We hope this year to include our three administrative staff as UUA employees, as well.
- Economies of scale have allowed us to add one full time professional consultant, providing now seven people to serve our congregational leaders.
- Separate “dues” payments to each District and the UUA Annual Program Fund (APF) assessment have been unified into GIFT (Generously Investing for Tomorrow). This single “Ask” is based on a more equitable percentage of congregational expenditures (in contrast to the traditional “head tax” of per member dues).
- There have been countless dotting of “i’s” and crossing of “t’s” to re-vision the shared work. Among the most important has been designing a way to empower the gifts of our lay volunteers. The Boards envision a ministry of relationships, led by an “Elder Council.” This group of volunteers will work with the professional staff going forward to increase our capacity to link congregations together in new “cluster” formations and direct service to unique leadership development concerns.
The emphasis of all these changes has been to become more robust in our service delivery to congregations, more nimble and adaptable to a rapidly changing cultural context, to grow our faith by doing more ministry while stepping out of governing four small business enterprises.
The Boards’ Communication Task Force will keep you apprised of the next steps. They and the staff all recognize change can be confusing, sometimes disconcerting. We eagerly seek your input and are committed to being fully transparent. It is a high priority to ensure our democratic process is honored and intact — indeed, we plan to expand that by utilizing remote voting procedures at the Annual Assemblies.
The theme for the Annual Assemblies is “We Are Building a New Way.” This is taken from the popular new hymn of similar name (#1017 in Singing the Journey). Indeed, we are — so much so that I often say we are creating something we’ve not ever seen before, an expansive, inter-twined, inter-connected set of ministries linking Unitarian Universalists across the Region as never before.
As with any change, I know some fear losing what’s familiar (the current system of District governance) to a vague promise of what might be. Thus, we need to remind ourselves of a few things: to assume good intentions, that we are truly stronger together than apart, that we share a common aspiration to see love and justice grow, that we want our congregations and ministries to be effective as never before. To embrace the changes involved in that requires creativity, to be sure, but trust and courage as well. So, I invite you …
Come, build a new way … free of hate and greed, that feeds our every need, and cultivate peace and freedom. May it be so. May we be so. Blessings, Kenn