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Saturday, March 8, 2008

Responsive resolutions: Spontaneous plenary business.

I've wondered how many people skip the final plenary session at each summer's UUA General Assembly in order to avoid the spectacle of the debate on Actions of Immediate Witness. (AIWs are social justice resolutions submitted by petition at GA.) Maybe the hundreds of empty chairs were vacated by ministers who had to get home a day early, or by exhibitors who needed to help take down their exhibit hall booths, or by people who desperately needed a nap, but then again, if comments from friends of mine are any indication, maybe the process strikes many people as tedious and inconsequential. (Disclosure: Although I've attended eleven General Assemblies since 1995, I've never been a delegate. Since 2001 I've attended GA as a journalist. So I may be a bit jaded.)

But in the last few years, AIW resolutions have been joined by the new and unpredictable spectacle of "responsive resolutions," which have emerged as a way to do denominational "business" more or less spontaneously at the very end of the Assembly. This year, a responsive resolution rooted in the controversy about the future of YRUU and C*UUYAN may make the final plenary session especially lively.

In theory, groups of congregations, individual district assemblies, or large groups of individual church members (from at least 25 congregations) can introduce "business resolutions." The Board of Trustees, its executive committee, and the Commission on Appraisal can also introduce business resolutions. But the last business resolution was adopted back in 1998. (The business resolution process is defined in Bylaw Section 4.11, Rule G-4.18.2, Rule G-4.18.3, and Rule G-4.18.4, although there may also be other relevant sections. Alas, I'm not aware of a simplified guide to the process.) Organizing a business resolution probably seems like a time-consuming and complicated way to engage the General Assembly, and I suspect that few congregational leaders can imagine what worthwhile thing they could accomplish by introducing a business resolution.

But if the lengthy, formal, theoretically congregationally-accountable business resolution process hasn't captured people's attention, the do-it-yourself responsive resolution process certainly has. The General Assembly has adopted responsive resolutions every year since 2000 (except 2003) — and the number of resolutions has been going up. There were two in 2005, four in 2006, and six in 2007. At least one has been a rejiggered Action of Immediate Witness that the Commission on Social Witness had turned down. The process is astonishingly straight-forward: A delegate may introduce a resolution "in response to a substantive portion of a report by an officer or committee reporting to a regular General Assembly." A two-thirds vote is required for adoption. (See Bylaw Section 4.16.c.) Voila!

I can't recall any debate on any of the responsive resolutions presented to the General Assembly — nor is it easy to imagine how a debate could emerge. The resolutions aren't (usually) circulated in advance, and unless someone shows up at the Con microphone almost immediately after the resolution is introduced, the delegates vote without further ado. It's the quick and easy way to get the General Assembly to approve something.

This year, some folks are planning their responsive resolutions in advance. Victoria Mitchell and Kimberlee Tomczak are circulating a resolution for district assemblies and for this summer's General Assembly reaffirming the ideal of "youth empowerment" in response to news about changes in the UUA's relationship to the youth organization YRUU and the young adult organization C*UUYAN. (See UU World's coverage of the YRUU story and the C*UUYAN story for background.) The Youth and Young Adult Empowerment Resolution is available on Mitchell and Tomczak's new blog, which also provides some personal background on the matter. (Mitchell writes that Daniel O'Connell encouraged the resolution idea, which is interesting because O'Connell has written about districts submitting General Assembly business resolutions at his UUA Politics blog.)

Because they're planning this resolution in advance, it will be interesting to see how (or whether) different models of youth ministry are discussed at GA — and whether this particular resolution generates meaningful discussion during a plenary session rather than simply a perfunctory vote affirming youth. In many respects, this resolution looks more like a business resolution than a responsive resolution, although its funding and staffing recommendations are fairly general. Will delegates see it as an affirmation of the board and administration's new vision of youth ministry, or will they see it as a rebuke?

Don't go home early this year: We might get a lively debate about how our Association does its work at the very end.

Update 3.9.08: The Youth and Young Adult Empowerment resolution is also posted at FUUSE and at the UU Youth and Young Adult Empowerment Facebook group (1,117 members and counting).

Update 5.6.08: At its April meeting, the UUA Board of Trustees placed the Youth and Young Adult Empowerment Resolution (as revised) on the General Assembly agenda as a business resolution. This means that delegates will get to see it in advance, and increases the likelihood that the resolution will be discussed rather than simply being adopted.

Copyright © 2008 by Philocrites | Posted 8 March 2008 at 12:14 PM

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6 comments:

Philocrites:

March 8, 2008 12:17 PM | Permalink for this comment

Scott Wells is sharply critical of the resolution.

Benjamin:

March 8, 2008 06:48 PM | Permalink for this comment

They'll see it as am empty gesture, I bet, and they'll be right.

I wrote a longer response to this issue on my own blog, about what the youth need to do if they want genuine empowerment. A hint: Resolutions are no part of it.

Dan:

March 8, 2008 07:46 PM | Permalink for this comment

Both seem pointless and meaningless -- both responsive resolutions and actions of immediate witness -- since they both result from poor process, and since both are routinely ignored by the vast majority of Unitarian Universalists.

I am sad that there will be a responsive resolution on youth empowerment, a topic which deserves serious consideration by the entire Association, instead of the laughable process of a responsive resolution.

Steve Caldwell:

March 9, 2008 07:57 PM | Permalink for this comment

Actions of Immediate Witness may be "pointless" for some issues and some Unitarian Universalists.

But the denominational lobbying work on marriage equality is grounded in the 1996 Action of Immediate Witness on this topic:

Support of the Right to Marry for Same-Sex Couples
http://www.uua.org/socialjustice/socialjustice/statements/14251.shtml

This 1996 resolution does (in my opinion) reflect the opinion of a majority of Unitarian Universalists on marriage equality at the time the resolution passed.

This may not be the case with most other ad-hoc resolutions passed at GA.

The concerns expressed with General Assembly business processes and the use of the ad-hoc resolution processes (Action of Immediate Witness and Responsive Resolutions) may be symptomatic of a disconnect between what happens at the denominational level and what happens in the congregation.

Every concern that has been expressed about UU youth and young adult communities at the associational level being out of touch could also be said about the General Assembly governing process as well.

Philocrites:

March 9, 2008 10:00 PM | Permalink for this comment

Steve writes: "Every concern that has been expressed about UU youth and young adult communities at the associational level being out of touch could also be said about the General Assembly governing process as well." Hear, hear!

But let me clarify something: I do take a dim view of denominational delegate bodies passing legislation to tell other people (or, among liberal denominations, telling governments) how they ought to behave. In part, this is because I distrust such proclamations as bullying, but even more because they're rarely persuasive. Almost no one takes our proclamations seriously, even among us.

But some of our resolutions have mattered -- and I'd argue that they're the ones rooted in our congregational practices and theological traditions, and aimed back at ourselves. When we're saying (in a grounded way) what we should be doing as a religious tradition, great! For this reason, I'd argue that the UUA resolutions in the 1990s supporting services of union and then marriage ceremonies for same-sex couples are the best examples in recent years of the General Assembly doing something important. They celebrated something that many churches were already doing, in a way that highlighted and extended a central function of the church and central features of our theology, so that other people could also see how we marry, how we worship, and how we embrace diversity.

Philocrites:

May 6, 2008 11:11 AM | Permalink for this comment

At its April meeting, the UUA Board of Trustees placed the Youth and Young Adult Empowerment Resolution (as revised) on the General Assembly agenda as a business resolution. This means that delegates will get to see it in advance, and increases the likelihood that the resolution will be discussed rather than simply being adopted.



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