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Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Purposes, purposes: Which ones really matter?

I'll confess: I don't understand the polity of the Unitarian Universalist Association at the moment, at least in the midst of the Board of Trustees' rethink of the Association's governance model.

The board has adopted "ends" it crafted for the Association*; the Commission on Appraisal is proposing modified "Purposes" for the Association's bylaws; and the UUA administration has its own mission statement for the staff. Oh, yeah, and we still have the current Purposes of the UUA. It gets a bit confusing. At the end of the day, which one will be operative?

The current Bylaws include this statement of the Association's Purposes (Article II: C-2.2):

The Unitarian Universalist Association shall devote its resources to and exercise its corporate powers for religious, educational and humanitarian purposes. The primary purpose of the Association is to serve the needs of its member congregations, organize new congregations, extend and strengthen Unitarian Universalist institutions and implement its principles.

Four primary purposes: two of them focused on serving existing congregations and organizing new ones, and two on strengthening UU institutions and implementing the UUA's Principles.

President Bill Sinkford has complained that the Purposes "simply do not ring with clarity." He has called the Purposes "our Association's mission statement, our calling," and has asked, "Shouldn't we all reflexively know our calling?" ("Let's rediscover our purpose," UU World, Spring 2007).

And so the UUA's leadership council — the senior staff of the UUA — developed a mission statement that "articulated the Purposes of the Association":

  • Support the health and vitality of UU congregations as they do their ministry in the community.

  • Open the doors of Unitarian Universalism to people who yearn for a liberal religious home.

  • Be a respected public voice for liberal religious values.

Unlike the Purposes in the Bylaws, this mission statement doesn't mention organizing new congregations. It also focuses on two ways of strengthening UU institutions and implementing the UUA's Principles: by opening Unitarian Universalism to "people who yearn for a liberal religious home" — language that connotes a mission to transform our current practices when they have effectively closed the door — as well as to reach out actively to would-be UUs. It also describes implementing the UUA's values as being a "respected public voice for liberal religious values."

The Commission on Appraisal will be asking the General Assembly to replace the current Principles and Purposes with a new text, "Covenant," that offers this purpose for the Association:

This association of free yet interdependent congregations devotes its resources to and exercises its corporate powers for religious, educational, and humanitarian purposes. It supports the creation, vitality, and growth of congregations that aspire to live out the Unitarian Universalist Principles. Through public witness and advocacy, it advances the Principles in the world.

This new statement identifies three primary commitments to congregations: forming new congregations, helping existing congregations thrive, and helping them grow. Missing, however, is any commitment to strengthening UU institutions. Another loss, in my view, is that the commitment to "implement [the UUA's] principles" has been narrowed down into a commitment to public witness and advocacy. There are other ways of promoting UU values and ideas than social activism — publishing, for example.

Finally, we have the fruit of the board's several years of work developing the Association's "ends" — "a Carver branded term for the broad vision and strategic directions developed for a non-profit organization [by its board]," according to UUA trustee Linda Laskowski. The UUA's "global end," adopted in October 2008, is:

Grounded in our covenantal tradition, the UUA will inspire people to lead lives of humility and purpose, connection and service, thereby transforming themselves and the world.

And these are the strategic directions the board has drafted to guide the work of the president and staff:

Our ENDS are growing Unitarian Universalist congregations that. . .

Unlock the Power that Transforms Lives

  • In our congregations, people deepen their spiritual lives. They:
    • Develop a personal spiritual practice
    • Participate in meaningful worship
    • Learn and practice empowered leadership and generosity.
    • Find their ministry in the world

  • Our congregations are:
    • Vibrant—joyful and excited about their ministries
    • Intentionally multi-generational and multi-cultural.
    • Networked with each other

  • Congregations are:
    • Active participants in ministerial preparation and development
    • Shared ministries
    • Agents of mission and extension

Invite people into congregations that live out covenant through:

  • A strong, articulated sense of UU and community identity
  • High expectations of their members
  • Full participation in Associational life
  • An open and inclusive outreach and welcome
  • Embracing and struggling with issues of oppression and privilege

Move toward sustainability, wholeness and reconciliation through ministries, partnerships, and alliances.

  • Our congregations answer the call to ministry and justice work:
    • Grounded in the communities in which they live
    • Nationally, internationally
    • With interfaith partners and alliances
  • The public engages in meaningful dialogue and takes action informed by our prophetic voice and public witness.

These are all at equal priority and are to be achieved within a justifiable cost.

It's probably unfair of me to include the board's strategic directions, since there's so much there to unpack, but they give us a glimpse of what the board really thinks congregations and the Association should be — and, more importantly, they flesh out the board's view of what the Association's purposes really are.

The General Assembly could vote against the Covenant proposed by the Commission on Appraisal and keep the current Principles and Purposes instead. But one or the other of those documents will include a formal statement of purpose. Meanwhile, though, the board and administration have each articulated the purposes of the Association — or have offered interpretations of the formal purposes expressed in the bylaws.

What do you see in these statements? Is anything missing? Do you prefer one to the others?

*Update 1.30.08: I misread Linda Laskowski's post as reporting that the board had adopted its global ends statement at its January 2009 meeting. But she really wrote that the board had adopted it last October. I've amended this post to reflect that.

Copyright © 2009 by Philocrites | Posted 28 January 2009 at 2:24 PM

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January 28, 2009 05:16 PM | Permalink for this comment

Personally, I don't think it makes sense for the UUA to claim to have a "prophetic voice." It's a committee, not a prophet. A much more reasonable goal would be to promote, through publishing etc., a diversity of "prophetic voices".

Belief that UUs should have only one prophetic voice, that of the UUA, leads the UUA to put great emphasis on intellectual conformity. After all, if we don't all think the same, we can't have just one voice.

A good example is the current campaign to force us all to think the same way about pacifism. Suppressing diversity within the denomination seems a high price to pay just so that the UUA can claim to be our "public voice" on a wide range of issues.

I would much prefer that the UUA reinvent itself as an organization which primarily serves congregations and turn the "prophetic voice" business over to independent affiliated organizations which would not be required to conform to particular ideas. We tolerate UU-Pagans, why not UU-Pacifists?


January 29, 2009 01:48 PM | Permalink for this comment

I had the feeling that affiliates usually attended the needs of minority groups within the denomination. I have no specific data, but it seems that there is a majority of pacifists among UUs, so I guess that it would be more appropiate to tolerate some kind of "UU-Warmongers Network" affiliate as a minority group within the UUA.

BTW I have read somewhere that the Affiliate is a species in short-term danger of extinction. Do you have any info about that?


January 30, 2009 09:57 AM | Permalink for this comment

I agree with uuwonk's comments about prophecy and would go further to say that it has received entirely too much emphasis of late, to the detriment of other values we have historically upheld, such as diversity, the "free and responsible search", character formation, compassion, selflessness, aand charity. We may no longer consider ourselves a Christian community, but if we sincerely want to honor rather than suppress our diversity we would nevertheless still do well to remember the advice about "gifts in differing measure", of which prophecy is only one of many, that own Rev. Frederick Hosmer borrowed in "Forward Through the Ages" (#179 in the grey hymnal) from St. Paul at Romans 12:

For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgement, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body..., and individually we are members one of another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honour. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the [faithful]; extend hospitality to strangers.

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. 18If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ No, ‘if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.


January 30, 2009 10:05 AM | Permalink for this comment

Oops. "Forward Though the Ages" is #114. Please pass the gingko.


January 30, 2009 10:25 AM | Permalink for this comment

Jaume, it's true that the board voted to retire the "independent affiliate" status next year, pending the development of a model of UUA staff relationships with independent organizations. (Independent affiliates are authorized by the UUA bylaws, so retiring them entirely will eventually require a bylaw change.) More on this at next week.

As for your hunch that most UUs are pacifists, here's some interesting data: UU World asked its readers in 2004 about their attitudes toward military force. Only 13 percent agreed that "I am a pacifist and oppose military solutions in all situations." The overwhelming majority, 79 percent, agreed that "I believe we should use military solutions only when unavoidable." Only 4 percent said "we should aggressively protect our interests abroad, using the military when necessary."

Paul Maurice Martin:

February 2, 2009 12:12 AM | Permalink for this comment

My honest impression of UU - going strictly by blogging (I'm severely disabled and entirely housebound) is that in practice it may be somewhat insular. I don't believe I've ever had a visit or conversation with anyone in your denomination despite four years of running an interfaith blog that's had a very wide range of visitors. I've always wondered about that. It may simply be statistics - that UU isn't large numerically.

If not, then these two purposes sound like important ones to me because they at least indirectly touch on the idea of UUs speaking beyond their own circle:

"Open the doors of Unitarian Universalism to people who yearn for a liberal religious home."

"Be a respected public voice for liberal religious values."


February 2, 2009 03:18 PM | Permalink for this comment

I know a lot of the people involved in this effort, and these are people I know and respect -- Linda Laskowski is one of the smartest lay leaders in the association today. But the documents you quote, Philocrites, are pretty much of a mess. Where does the mess come from? I think it comes about because the Carver model of policy governance does not translate well to the UUA; or indeed to UU congregations.

I believe the Carver model might work well for the stereotypical non-profit organization run by a Board and an E.D. and funding which comes primarily from a few big stakeholders (e.g., grants, foundations). But I believe the Carver model is a poor fit for membership organizations in which membership meetings set policy, and hand that policy off to a Board and an E.D. (where ministers often function as an E.D. in our churches) for implementation.

In such membership organizations, it is the membership who set policy, not the Board, which means that you cannot follow the Carver model of having the Board set policy (which is what the UUA is trying to do here). Instead, there should be a different process for setting policy, involving the annual membership meeting (in the case of the UUA, that would be GA). You can do strategic plans and goal-setting in membership organizations in a way that involves the whole membership, but the Carver model does not give you an adequate process for that.

Furthermore, the great weakness of the Carver model (admitted by Carver himself) is accountability. It's all too easy for the Board not to hold the E.D. sufficiently accountable. Then when you throw in a supervisory annual meeting, it seems to me that accountability becomes very problematic.

For these two reasons, I believe the Carver model cannot be applied to membership organizations without getting involved in serious problems -- the model doesn't fit the reality. This means we cannot apply the Carver model to any UU congregation or the UUA without causing problems. Philocrites, what you are documenting is exactly the kind of problems I would expect -- lack of involvement on the part of the whole membership of the organization (against the stated organizational principles of the organization), and a lack of accountability to key stakeholders, in this case to the membership.

Thus the major part of the solution to this problem is to throw out the Carver model. Instead of the Carveer model, it would be a good idea for UUA leadership to go out and read Peter Drucker's book on non-profit leadership -- Drucker worked with churches, he knew churches, his concepts work in churches; and his ideas are flexible, unlike Carver's fatal rigidity.

(ducks behind pew to hide from things being thrown by Carver model advocates)

Patrick McLaughlin:

February 4, 2009 01:12 PM | Permalink for this comment

I'm with Dan. There's a lot that's appealing about the Carver model--and people have fallen for (more or less) all or nothing.

We opted to learn from it... but developed (and are evolving) our own "hybrid" model. Particularly for those congregations that have a strong lay leadership tradition, Carver is either a no-go from the start, or it will be a train wreck. I suspect that may explain the wild lack of enthusiasm I detect in my congregation for the UUA's model of things right now. Policy from the top? Surely you jest. Articulation of, clarification of the policy voiced from the membership... sure.

Chance Hunter:

February 4, 2009 07:20 PM | Permalink for this comment

We've been having a good run with policy governance the last couple of years. We're not doing a straight Carver model, but I doubt few congregations do. We've had both John and Miriam Carver come speak to us. (They live here in Atlanta.) Miriam seemed to understand the need for modifications to the model for congregations, fwiw.

Perhaps the needs of smaller congregations (and the UUA) are so different that policy governance isn't helpful there, but we've found it helpful. The main thing it's done is free staff (paid and volunteer) to do ministry instead of asking permission to do it. I've seen so many congregations where the board serves, in practice, to deny permission to do anything. Or where the barriers to entry are so high (and it doesn't have to be very high) that it discourages people before they even get started.

First example. This one's is before we completely moved to policy governance, but the effect is the same. A friend and I, before I joined staff, had the idea to start up a group for 20 and 30somethings. So we just up and started it. Now the group has 80 to 100 active people. (The mailing list is much larger.) We've been asked how we managed to get the board to let us do what we do. We never asked the board, and we never asked the congregation. We just did it, and it's been a major source of membership growth for the congregation ever since. If we'd had to run it past the board, we would never have started it.

Second example. As a staff person, I set out to do a complete overhaul of our website. For permission, I simply asked my boss, the senior minister. The whole process, including focus groups, research into other large congregational websites, evaluation of sofware, design, and implementation, took about nine months. If I had had to go through a board or a committee or---gasp!---the entire congregation to get permission to do this, it would have taken twice as long and been half as comprehensive. (You can see the results at

The policy governance question may just boil down to: Who do you trust to lead you? Policy governance places that trust solidly in the board and the executive and lets them make far-reaching decisions on behalf of the organization. If you don't trust your board and senior minister to make those kinds of decisions, you shouldn't do policy governance.

But if you don't trust them to make those kinds of those decisions, shouldn't you fire them? Isn't it better to say "here are the things this organization should accomplish" and "here are they ways you're not allowed to go about it" and then let wise and creative leaders lead?


February 9, 2009 01:42 PM | Permalink for this comment

KitsapMan responds to Dan and Chance's comments about policy governance at the congregational level at his (new to me) blog "All Carrot, No Stick."


February 10, 2009 03:13 AM | Permalink for this comment

I'm tired of arguments about words.

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