Quite Literally a Hot Mess: Contretemps Over the Phoenix GA 2012

I have just heard that two members of our Unitarian Universalist General Assembly Planning Committee have resigned. The article is here.

I’m going to comment on this issue from the perspective of a clergyperson who cares about the work of our General Assembly but who neither knows, nor intends to intensively research, the extreme specifics of our planned 2012 “Justice General Assembly.” My semi-ignorance is intentional: it is because I deeply believe that insider politics are the scourge of the institutional Church. I believe that very few people care about insider politics, or have the privilege of enough spare time to stay current with the e n d l e s s conversation it generates. My observation is that the vast majority of participants in any faith tradition desire the church (in this case, the Unitarian Universalist Association of independent congregations) to be community of love and service, prayer and study, and the nurturing of all souls.

Hence, I will keep my observations brief and, I hope, fairly simple.

The individuals and congregations devoted to immigrant justice issues in Arizona are admirable, and I fully support their good works.

However, given that the purpose of our General Assembly is to do the work of the Association, and that the “work of the Association” can only interpreted by the most creative institutional contortions as “spending the week partnering with local Arizona organizations in the work of immigrant justice,” this gathering should stop calling itself a General Assembly. The commitment to having 2012 be a “Justice GA” (a new animal for our tradition) was voted on last year by the GA delegates, which makes it legitimate by congregational polity. What has subsequently happened, however, is that the other congregational-polity aspects of this General Assembly (most specifically, the role of the General Assembly Planning Committee, a group elected by the delegates) have been eroded by what is being perceived as a take-over by the UUA Board.

So this is a polity mess that is unfortunately being played out as a personality and identity issue, with accusations of power abuse flying from one side and accusations of bad faith (eg, people who don’t support this “Justice GA” aren’t good, faithful Unitarian Universalists because they are obviously not committed enough to justice work and witness) flying back from the other side. That’s really a shame.

I think it would have been far wiser had the GA of 2010 voted to suspend General Assembly for 2012 and to converge on Phoenix en masse for an act of group witness, worship and collaboration with local justice organizations. No need to call it a GA. It isn’t a General Assembly. What should have happened is that the leaders of the organizational structures devoted to the General Assembly should have been approached by the, say, “Witness and Justice 2012 Task Force” (I just made up that name; no such body exists), and ASKED IF AND HOW they would like to work on the Arizona project.

Right? Because God does occasionally create something new under the sun, right? And in this case, quite literally under the sun? And wouldn’t it have been possible for UUs to have discerned this, and responded to this sense of calling recognizing the need for a new structure that would make liberal use of existing structures (no need to re-invent the wheel here)? There may be by-law reasons that this had to be called General Assembly (I suspect there were- probably financial reasons), but holding onto the name and the concept is causing a lot of chaos.

So it is that tremendous resources of time, money and mutual good will are being bled over the organization of this new thing under the sun, this non-GA (my God, all this Sturm und Drang for four or five days?), with long-ranging polity implications and worst of all, the loss of devoted lay volunteers who were charged to do the work of planning our GAs and have now resigned in frustration because they feel they are being steamrollered by the board.

God of community, Holy One who calls us out of the comfort of our old ways and into frightening frontiers, gather my people and guide them.

Where we are closed, break us open. Transform our anger to courage, bring our hearts and minds together to discern our calling in this moment. Be with us as a creative spirit, help us to include the talents and gifts of all in our vision, help us find el camino, the way.

Dios nos concede la sabiduría. Grant us wisdom. Amen.

12 Replies to “Quite Literally a Hot Mess: Contretemps Over the Phoenix GA 2012”

  1. Your idea on the suspending GA sounds fairly good – why didn’t you propose it at GA 2010 (and in its leadup) when folks were trying to figure out what to do? Use your blog, social media, etc. to rally for it? First time I’ve heard of it.

  2. Because I’m generally told to shut up when I propose things that make too much sense. Snark aside, I did run it by half a dozen people who immediately launched into lengthy “we’ve never done it that way before” defenses disguised as thoughtful critique, which makes my eyes glaze over and causes me to lose interest. It’s part of that extreme insider thing, do you know what I mean? Like, “Oh, if you were really informed (ie, extreme insider), you would get why that’s a ridiculous proposition.”

  3. I missed the 2010 GA–sounds like you did too–but as best as I could follow last spring’s debate from afar, skipping a year of GA was not an option; it must take place once every fiscal year (Article IV, Section 4.3 of the UUA bylaws). The delegates had to make a decision very fast in response to events that happened long after we’d committed a lot of moolah to Arizona, and only a few weeks before our 2010 GA. So isn’t the question now, how to make the best of an undesirable situation?

    The Board continues on a path it’s followed over the past several years of consolidating its own, and the headquarters’, power; such is the tendency of almost all leadership, and the electorate must be vigilant in order to continually drag it back. It doesn’t surprise me to hear that a UUA committee (or some members of it, anyway) is fed up with Board interference. But then I haven’t been very happy with the GAPC in recent years, either, as they clamp down on a larger and larger percentage of the workshops. Both tendencies are perfectly compatible with congregational polity, since both bodies are elected by the GA,, and the Board deserves a lot of credit for taking up the question of how to make General Assemblies more accessible so that our delegate body can be truly representational instead of the current oligarchy of who can afford to go. I couldn’t agree with you more that whatever polity tensions, even precedents, this special event creates, we should not adopt them as the new normal.

    Re: the old fat white guys in the desert (and the rest of us–being that part of the justice issue is that the desert is not a friendly environment for any human), everyone keeps assuming that a “justice GA” means “we stand outside at rallies all day every day,” which is understandable, since that’s usually the form our witness takes, both at General Assembly with its annual ritual of protesting some local injustice, and around the continent. Rallies are okay but ought to constitute about 1% of our witness toolbox instead of 80%. I hope the planning committee(s!) will have a broader vision.

  4. Oh – I tend to just ignore those voices and do it anyways. Granted, you’re a minister, so I imagine your freedom to do so is constrained in part by that.

    Amy – it could have been up for a vote – amending the bylaws for one specific year. (Like was done with Actions of Immediate Witness.

  5. The one thing that we absolutely can’t ever do, is not have GA one year. It’s not that the bylaws require it, but the law does. Without GA, on July 1st the UUA is not authorised by its member congregations to do business. Close the doors and go home.

    Now, I couldn’t go to GA either in 2010, but there WAS a smarter way to do things:
    The GA should have suspended some of the business of a regular GA, and ordered the Board to call General Assembly 2012 to convene on Wednesday the 27th of June, 2012, and END the same day (If we don’t need to do AIWs, we really can do all the business of GA in a day).

    Then, they could have called a Special GA, which doesn’t have to follow almost ANY of the rules of a Regular GA, for the purpose of “engaging in witness”, and let it exist from the 28th-1st (or whenever GA is, I’m just looking at a calendar in my phone)

    But who am I, but a former GAPC member who actually reads the bylaws and seeks to understand my power as a member of a UU congregation?

  6. Precisely, kinsi. Ministers are supposed to listen to the voices. Sometimes that means attending to them, sometimes it means knowing to ignore them.

    In this case, GA had to happen (bylaws, damn them–but I’m filing this persnickity insistence that they be studiously attended to, because I have an issue for later…). The delegates voted NOT to boycott. And no, the bylaws were NOT amended for one year (that, as Gini observed, would be illegal, a means of voiding sections we don’t like when we don’t like them). The AIW vote, she observed, could not be to eliminate them for one year. Instead, we voted not to eliminate them entirely. Instead, we voted to eliminate doing up to six, and to start doing three *after* 2012. That can be argued, legally, to be a change that’s not just to skip AIWs for 2012.

    No one tried to vote to do away with GA–which might be legal, though complicated, since critical things for the UUA happen there. But to skip one would be illegal. Now, had someone thought to try to implement the 5th Principle Project proposal that GA go to every other year (the old Universalist model, incidentally… which we were going to implement ‘sometime’ after the UUA got its legs under it… but needed the Unitarian every year model to start with, according to leading Unitarians…), *skipping* 2012, and accepting the cost of canceling the commitments (half a million, if I recall correctly, to the UUA), and calling on the Board and congregations to gather for a Justice event in Phoenix in July ’12, (not “instead of”), that could have flown. Maybe.

    But as I see it, the Board got told by the delegates to go and do a Justice GA. And the GA was not under their control, so they had to take some control. Hell, if you’re going to have accountability…

  7. Exactly Patrick. The GA did a bad bad thing last year, and ordered the Board to do something that was delegated to the GAPC. The Board didn’t need to be involved in this at all.

  8. @kinsi, on amending bylaw 4.3: according to UUA legal counsel, it’s not permissible to suspend a portion of the bylaws — that’s why the Actions of Immediate Witness not just suspended for one year, but removed and brought back in altered form.

    Would it have been possible to do some sort of remove and modify amendment with 4.3? Maybe, but the boycott vs. no boycott discussion at GA 2010 came down to a “Justice GA” compromise, not a “skip GA for a year and do something different in Phoenix” compromise. This was a fragile compromise between the AZ congregations and people of color and I suspect that if we had tried shifting to something completely different, like skipping GA completely and hold some non-GA event in Phoenix, the consensus would have unraveled quickly.

    As one of those Board members whose terms ended this year, my take on this is that the board recognizes that by holding GA in Phoenix we are violating a boycott. We are doing this with the blessing of the groups who are enforcing that boycott, but that blessing is based on trust that we aren’t just going to do our usual thing (a lot of miscellaneous workshops and plenary sessions, with a public witness event tacked on). What we’re seeing now is a lot of angst because the board really wants to make sure that we do this right and feels the cost of doing this wrong could be high — on the level of the Black Empowerment misadventure of the late 60s/early 70s.

  9. Hi,

    I looked everywhere for a place to send you a private message – feel free to delete this after reading. (It may be in plain sight – I’m still working on my first cup of coffee!) Anyway, I have no complaints re: you are using my photo but would appreciate it if you’d give me photo credit. Thanks! 🙂

    Hi Suzi, so sorry, what photo is it? And you can get in touch with me by clicking the “Bang Back” button at the banner. – PB]

  10. I have been following the conversations about this on the UUA- GA digest – very sad – it is a reprise of the anti-racist effort – i.e. all UUs should go to Phoenix next year, all UUs should do immigrant work in their congregations, all UUs should be willing to fund this effort in AZ (notwithstanding that Arizona is only one state with this issue) – and anyone who isn’t enthusiastic has failed the current litmus test – the result? except for the ministers who might need/want something from the UUA, theological students who are going before the fellowship committee soon, and social justice activists for this issue the rest will vote with their feet and will not go to GA at all and will just avoid speaking, preaching or talking about the issue – isn’t that the way it has always worked?

  11. Dear Peacebang, maven of all internet social media, there IS something about this “hot mess” I would love to hear your advice about, and now that you’ve broached the subject, perhaps you’ll indulge me!

    I should say that I have been following this in more detail than I ought to because I don’t have the time either. I ought to be writing my MFC competencies, due in less than 2 weeks, but you know about procrastination!

    So, I have been watching this “hot mess” and thinking about nasty church politics–you know, when there’s some hot conflict between some church leaders and some of them say things outside those meetings they should have saved for face-to-face private sessions and soon everybody has an opinion and there’s about 15 different stories about what happened (despite a membership of under 60), people are divided into camps, no one knows who to trust, and there’s rampant triangulation?

    I’m sure you’ve been there or somewhere near it. I know the standard advice and have had some minor success in helping church leaders understand–go directly to the leader with your concerns, if you don’t find satisfaction follow the outlined appropriate process, but please do not triangulate and gossip.

    So, my question is, how do we as dedicated and committed church folks use social media appropriately when our larger body starts dissolving into politics that feel very much like the above nasty church politics? Your post trying to bring some sanity has made room for discussion that is both useful (clarifying bylaw issues) and not so much. (e.g. I always question the word always 🙂 )

    So far, wishing not to be Not Helpful, I have contained my involvement with the “Hot Mess” by simply sending messages of condolences to my good friends on the Board , Accountability Team, and GAPC, and to those other good friends who were part of hammering out the much maligned compromise resolution at GA2010. (Poor souls doing the hard work I am glad I am not doing–and a surprising large number of them are refraining from gossiping even with good friends!)

    But, not doing or saying things, of course, does nothing to interfere with the easy way the internet serves as a fertility drug for wild gossip mongering, innuendo, and conspiracy theories. I would love to hear your advice on this conundrum!

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