Business Resolution: Renewing UUA Bylaws for Theologically Grounded and Mission-Focused Governance

Edited by the Board at its meeting on 5/23/2022.

FULL TEXT OF RESOLUTION:

Unitarian Universalism is called to create spirit-filled, liberating, inclusive, and holistic communities that foreshadow the world of our dreams. Against the backdrop of a looming ecological catastrophe, a multiracial, multicultural democracy struggles to emerge and survive in the face of ferocious resistance. Our faith can be a wellspring to dismantle white supremacy culture, and all forms of oppression. We need more effective and impactful systems and leadership to bring about communities where everyone can thrive.

To meet this moment, the UUA needs to be mission-focused, unified, innovative, and bold. But we are hampered by our overly complicated and inefficient governance, enshrined in our bylaws which date from our founding more than 60 years ago and have been patched and mended piecemeal ever since. This creates obstacles for meaningful participation in the UUA’s governance. It diverts precious resources (including volunteers) toward maintaining the structure that has been, rather than freeing our energies to live our mission in ways that meet today’s need.

Our bylaws were built for a very different time and for a different purpose. In June 2020, the Commission on Institutional Change issued its report, Widening the Circle of Concern. The report identifies significant challenges in our governance structure that prevent us from living faithfully into a liberatory expression of Unitarian Universalism where all can thrive. The 1993 Commission on Governance and 2014 Strengthening Governance reports included calls to make significant changes to governance, including the leadership structure, the role of covenant in governance, and meaningful engagement in decision making by congregational delegates.

We need bylaws that provide role clarity, accountability to our values, and flexibility that allows for innovation and meaningful participation so we can unleash the leadership gifts of our people and the impact and values of our Association in the wider world. The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the reality that many of our bylaw-codified volunteer positions require unreasonable time expectations. Our structure is rooted in outdated models of volunteer labor that don’t represent the reality of many people’s lives today, nor the diversity in leadership we need for our Association.

During 2020 and 2021, thousands of UUs along with over one hundred core leaders volunteered for UU the Vote making it one of the most successful Association-wide justice efforts. During this same period, many of our bylaw standing committees went unfilled. People want to offer their gifts to the Association. However, our structures serve the institution as it was, rather than what it needs to be. We are following the lead of many congregations who have updated their bylaws to remove many standing committees recognizing changing models of volunteerism and the need for flexibility and innovation.

The pandemic also created the opportunity to hold the General Assembly virtually. This has allowed even more innovative ways to gather and engage our congregations and delegates in governance. It also reveals how the current bylaws fundamentally constrain our ability to reimagine General Assembly in ways that have long been called for by delegates. The UUA bylaws contain significant inconsistencies and outdated sections because the mechanism to amend them is costly in terms of leaders’ and delegates’ time and attention. This is why a wholescale re-write rather than piecemeal changes is needed.

In conclusion, the time to reimagine our bylaws to create a dynamic, accountable, flexible and responsive governance system is now.

Therefore the 2022 General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association calls on the UUA Board of Trustees to conduct a thorough review and rewrite of the UUA Bylaws. This review should involve stakeholders in collaborative discernment and conversation about considered changes. These new bylaws should create a governance system that supports the UUA in accountably achieving its mission and aspirations consistent with our core values.

This process will be mindful of the specific work of the Article 2 Study Commission charged to renew Article 2 of the UUA bylaws. There should be communication across these efforts so that they are supportive of each other and so all of our bylaws reflect our Association’s purpose and core values.

These values and goals should guide the new bylaws framework:

a. Reflect our theological commitment to liberation and inclusion

b. Provide accountability to our long-standing anti-racist and anti-oppressive commitments

c. Create flexibility, allowing for innovation and experimentation

d. Provide clarity of role and authority among leaders and groups that support diverse leadership

e. Enhance meaningful participation in governance by UU congregations, delegates, stakeholders.

f. Address foundational areas of governance required in bylaws, leaving details of policy and procedures to documents that can be revised between General Assemblies.

g. Written in plain language to be understandable and clear.

Finally, the hope of the 2022 General Assembly is that substantial bylaw replacement will be brought to the General Assembly for consideration at the 2023 and/or 2024 General Assembly.

5 Likes

How will delegates and interested individual UUs, who may not have a formal role in a congregation/fellowship/society or other UU organization, follow this process between GAs?

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It’s pretty easy to believe that the bylaws from decades ago do not suit the vision that leaders have today. It’s hard for a lay person to really understand the implications of what’s intended here. Since it’s hard to evaluate the proposal, I wonder whether you can offer an historical example of when these sorts of changes were implemented in another spiritual community and how that turned out. If not that, then what model is being used for framing the new bylaws? In particular, UUs might be interested in how accountability has been implemented in other communities and what we might learn while we write accountability into our bylaws. Thanks.

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I fear that the UUA leadership will use this opportunity to create a new “woke” theocracy wherein only one divinely revealed and unquestionably true doctrine will be tolerated – where the existing UU principles and covenants will be cast aside as corrupt remnants of White Supremacy Culture.

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May I ask what you mean by “woke”? That’s a term I usually only hear among either African Americans to describe being awake to systemic racism, or by conservatives and white nationalists as a buzzword for anyone who opposes them.

And, for what it’s worth, I actually grew up in a theocracy. I was raised in a religion where dress, grooming, what you watch and read, every aspect of life was tightly controlled. We sang hymns of gratitude for Theocracy (and yes, we were taught it was a good thing). So as someone who has gone through literal years of therapy to undo the damage by literal theocracy, please believe me when I say: being anti-racist and liberating the oppressed is not “theocracy.”

I’m feeling a lot of fear in your words. Please believe me: people of color, queer people, white UUs who want to be anti-racist, we’re not your enemies. In fact, its the “existing principles and covenants” that are the reason I’m so in love with this proposal.

I see you as my sibling in UUism, and it bothers me to see such fear. What can I do to help?

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Something I learned in seminary was just how much our current by-laws emerged out of distrust. Unitarians and Universalist were ready to join, but didn’t fully trust each other. As I read this, I think about the time at GA that we took 45 minutes to approve the rules, or how many times a conversation about a meaty or important subject wasn’t really possible because we had spent so much time on the obscure minutea of by-laws.

As I read this, it makes me excited! I wonder if we, like those UUs 60 years ago, will let distrust and fear bind us, or if we’re willing to take a leap of faith in love and really risk being creative.

I’m excited to see where this conversation goes, and I for one am very excited to vote for this.

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As long as I have been a UU (1998), there has never been a single consistent theology; how can we make the by-laws “theological” and still inclusive?

What is the process intended to be to create new by-laws? How will individual congregations/fellowships/societies (CFSs), as well as individual UUs who don’t get association information through their CFS be included? Who are considered “stakeholders”, and what format will the “collaborative discernment” take? I might support a program that was laid out in detail, rather than a long justification, a statement of goals that raise as many questions as answers, but as it stands, I would send it back for more specifics about the proposed process.

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I’m picturing a process similar to the Article II Commission, but I do agree with Sally G that it would be helpful to have that process piece noted somehow.

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Once again we have the undefined “accountability”. Many opponents of the 8th Principle and the anticipated changes by the Art II Commission will again jump to the conclusion that accountability includes possibly de-fellowshipping ministers, increasing oversight of day to day congregational activities, and theological concepts imposed by fiat. The UUA needs to have a statement that for once and for all debunks that, or the rumor mill will continue to spread.

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Agree with intent of the bylaws, but also understand skepticism and caution among other posts. There is a wide range of perspectives in our congregation- some very skeptical. Process and goals are in question. “Meaningful participation in governance by congregations, delegates and stakeholders”- would or could that mean a wider, broader and more inclusive process to search for board members, president and other officers? A diversity of ideas and perspectives, including from those we may disagree with, is crucial for effective leadership, and should be traits leadership seeks out. (Group think can be a problem in ANY organization.) I think bylaws changes should explicitly make it easier for diverse candidates to run for various offices, not more difficult.

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I’m unaware of that 45-minute discussion, so it is hard to evaluate whether that time was needed because of controversial rule changes, or not. “Obscure minutia of by-laws” often do not seem so unimportant to some people who rely on them to understand process.

I agree about making running for office easier. When I see the word “stakeholders”, I automatically worry—a result of many years of seeing that word used in civil government to mean politicians, business people, sometimes leaders of large NGOs (nongovernmental organizations), but rarely if ever residents or small community groups.

Agreed. Unless it is stated openly that there is not a specific philosophy/theology expected, that no litmus tests will be used, that there is a standard due process analogous to democratic systems elsewhere, “accountability” can and will be interpreted in many ways, some in direct conflict with each other. We need to define our terms before they are used, and before we vote to accept them.

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The basic proposition in this resolution is against everything that drew me to a UU congregation. For those of us who wish to pursue liberal religion, one of the keys is that the central body of the denomination does not think that it is its job to decide what people think theologically. The congregation is the center of theological development.

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Our theology is represented by our sources and principles; it’s not a single, down-from-the-top theology, and that will not change. I think a lot of the questions raised in this discussion can be answered by watching the recorded webinar on the business resolutions (accountability, stakeholders, de-fellowshipping).

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“details of policy and procedures to documents that can be revised between General Assemblies.”
This is a concern; this year, there is no CS/AI because the CSW chose not to accept subjects, though there was definite interest in proposing Education as a topic, even before the mass shooting in Texas that made it more immediate. Also, the voting process for accepting Actions of Immediate Witness is unclear; in the past, delegates have voted to choose 3 of 6 submitted; this year, the CSW is apparently (undemocratically) making that choice (though that may change). Delegates who are not involved in UUA business all year should know that they can check one document, that changes little from year to year, to be able to prepare properly.
I am not opposed to a review of our by-laws, but worried about removing things without specific justification, and I am wary of changes between GAs.

I am also wary of that, especially as Article II is being reviewed and changes proposed.

I did not find this Webinar comforting. It would be good for the UUA to have constructive webinars including people critical of these ideas so that others can understand the potential problems. For example, the excessive use of the word “covenant” and change of its meaning in the last twenty years appears to be primarily a top down movement and there is not discussion of why this is disturbing to many people.

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Several times in the webinar there are references to things that “UUs agree on and the like” when in fact there are disagreements about some of these things. As far as I can tell, the UUA allows itself the discretion to forbid debate on issues on official web outlets. This allows them the opportunity to claim that what is on the web pages is agreed on by all UUs. I would like to be told that I am wrong about this so please feel free to demonstrate where the UUA has not acted in this way (in the last few years).

1 Like