One of the things I’ve found that make Congregational Polity stand out for me is the access I have as an individual to the leadership of my denomination. Many denominations have leaders who are all but inaccessible, except through their Administrative Assistants and Personal Assistants. I have found the leadership of the Unitarian Universalist Association to be VERY accessible.
We were shocked by the resignation of our then-current President, Peter Morales, just prior to the end of his term. There was controversy around his resignation, primarily due to what was seen as a culture of “white supremacy” within the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) and their hiring practices. I put the term “white supremacy” in quotation marks, because our association was not subject to the virulent actions and words that people normally associate with the term.
There were no cross-burnings, no hateful or vitriol-filled rhetoric, and certainly no life-threatening actions taken…but still, when there was an opportunity to hire a well-qualified minority female for an open leadership position, our Association (and by proxy, our President) failed to do so. The reactions were immediate and harsh – we (congregation members and leaders) held the UUA accountable and responsible and repeatedly stated that this could not continue.
To fill the open position and ensure that operations would continue, three (3) Co-Presidents were appointed to fulfill the rest of former President Morales’ term. The fact that all three of the Co-Presidents – Rev. William Sinkford, Rev. Sofia Betancourt and Rev. Leon Spencer) were all minorities gave us reason to celebrate and to hope this was the signal of a “sea change” for the organization. Rev. William Sinkford is a past UUA President, and Rev. Sofia Betancourt served my home congregation for nearly a year as a periodic service leader while studying at Yale University.
Additionally, we had three (3) female candidates running to be the next President of the Association – a historical event in it’s own right. The Rev. Alison Miller, Rev. Jeanne Pupke, and Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray (from left to right) all stepped up and made the commitment to run for office – not a small task!
The next elected President of the Association would be chosen by a vote of the delegates at General Assembly (GA) – another example of congregational polity at work. Other congregations I’ve been a part of had little to no say in choosing their leadership – they were expected to place complete trust in the “powers that be” and accept whoever was sent their way.
Another reason to be engaged and present at the 2017 GA in New Orleans – as a delegate from my congregation, I felt the responsibility and the “charge.” I was excited to be present when history was made, and I’d taken advantage of a regional conference where all three Presidential candidates were present to get a good idea of how they felt about big issues and small ones within our faith. I was even part of a “second line” parade through downtown New Orleans, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the three candidates.
Normally, when someone runs for an elevated position within an organization, the people at the “ground level” of the organization might never have a personal connection to the candidate. They might not get a chance to sit down and talk with them, ask them questions, and hear their thoughts. I am grateful that I had that chance – in fact, multiple chances – to do just that. It’s a wonderful spot to be in, and it would not have happened in my prior denominations.
One of the questions I dealt with during my class activities was the comparison between Abstraction and Implementation. Abstraction can be defined as dealing with ideas rather than events, and Implementation deals with the actions we take – making things happen. Abstractions can be terrific tools – showing us what can be, what is possible, while Implementation make the “dream” work. Without implementation, dreams become pie-in-the-sky and cease to be attainable. We too often characterize dissent as something bad or negative, when I think constructive dissent – recognizing good ideas, but also recognizing they are impractical or unworkable – can also be valuable. Constructive dissent – as I saw exemplified in GA Business Sessions where people disagreed with language proposed for changes to items we were voting on – does not have to be negative. Requesting clarification can be a sign of engagement – and engagement is necessary for an association like ours to move forward and correct misunderstandings and mistakes from our past.
The gift of Congregational Polity means that we don’t have to accept agreements of the past as “gospel” which can never be changed or questioned. Even our UU Principles can be adapted and updated – or like this year, an entirely NEW Principle be proposed and studied as a step toward adoption within our denomination.