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General Assembly endorses youth 'empowerment'

UUA’s 2008 convention asks for annual reports from congregations and denominational groups about youth and young adult empowerment.
By Jane Greer And Christopher L. Walton
7.7.08

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youth delegates at General Assembly (Nancy Pierce/UUA)

Members of the General Assembly Youth Caucus speak in favor of a business resolution calling for greater investment in youth leadership. (Nancy Pierce)

Young people asserted themselves powerfully at the 2008 General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., lobbying successfully for a resolution affirming “youth and young adult empowerment” in the face of controversial changes in the UUA’s programs for younger UUs.

The Youth and Young Adult Empowerment Resolution, which delegates approved on Friday, June 27, asks congregations to provide ministerial support to youth and young adults through inclusive worship, to give financial support to youth and young adult leadership bodies and programs, to provide youth and young adult staff and volunteers with suitable training and resources, and to pay special attention to the needs of youth and young adults with marginalized identities.

The resolution was drafted in response to news earlier this year that the UUA would phase out support for the denominational youth organization YRUU. (The UUA also cut funding for the Continental UU Young Adult Network, an organization for 18- to 35-year-old UUs that is in the process of reorganizing.) In February, UUA President William G. Sinkford acknowledged that YRUU “will be replaced at some point with a new structure,” but emphasized that the UUA has been evaluating its approach to youth ministry for several years and is at work on developing a new structure.

Victoria Mitchell, a 17-year-old youth from the Eliot Unitarian Chapel in St. Louis, said the resolution was important because “over 90 percent of youth leave and never come back to Unitarian Universalism.” Mitchell wrote the original resolution with Kimberlee Tomczak, the youth and young adult coordinator for the Central Midwest District. The UUA Board of Trustees placed the resolution on the GA agenda.

Former UUA moderator Denny Davidoff spoke in opposition to the resolution. “I know, admire, and love many people at the pro mike,” she said. “But in its vast comprehensiveness, I fear this resolution will be asking this delegate body to make promises that many congregations cannot keep.”

Other opponents of the resolution expressed similar reservations. Several expressed support for the spirit of the resolution, but said that as delegates they could not commit their congregations to action without their consent—especially to programs that represented a financial commitment. Others objected that the resolution was too vague, lacked an accountability structure, and that it did a disservice to both youth and young adults by combining the two age groups. (The UUA considers youth to be 14 to 20 years old, while young adults are 18 to 35 years old.)

At Sunday’s final plenary session, the youth caucus returned with a responsive resolution outlining a system of accountability for the original resolution. The resolution asks the UUA administration, the Board of Trustees, the Nominating Committee, the Ministerial Fellowship Committee, the General Assembly Planning Committee, and each congregation and district to report back annually for the next three years on their progress in implementing the Empowerment Resolution. It asks the UUA administration to create a reporting mechanism and a means of presenting these reports at the next three GAs.

“This Responsive Resolution will allow us to monitor progress at all levels as the UUA moves toward youth and young adult empowerment,” Mitchell said.

UUA President William G. Sinkford emphasized his commitment to youth ministry in his annual report to the Assembly Friday morning. First, he summarized some of the goals that emerged from the Consultation on Ministry to and with Youth: “a shift in Association support to the congregational level, visionary leadership to create truly multi-generational communities, youth ministries rooted in spirituality and faith development, and effective nurture and support for our BGLTQ and youth of color.”

“Let me assure you that my commitment—like that of the UUA staff and board—to a truly comprehensive youth ministry could not be stronger,” Sinkford said. “We will get there, together.”

For past UU World coverage of youth and young adult issues, see the links in the sidebar.


Delegates approved most items on the June 25-29 General Assembly agenda with little to no debate. The Assembly endorsed six Actions of Immediate Witness, calling for single-payer health care, a higher minimum wage, and the renewal of a tax credit for wind and solar power, and expressing opposition to a U.S. military attack on Iran, ballot initiatives in Florida and California that would bar same-sex marriage, and slave-like conditions for undocumented immigrant farmworkers. Delegates also selected a new Congregational Study Action Issue, welcomed six new congregations, approved the merger of two New England districts, and urged the UUA to support affordable health care through corporate shareholder activism.

The Assembly chose “ethical eating” over “nuclear disarmament” as the UUA’s new four-year Congregational Study Action Issue (CSAI). At the end of four years of congregational engagement, the Commission on Social Witness will draft a Statement of Conscience for the General Assembly to consider. Statements of Conscience are regarded as denominational policy.

The ethical eating CSAI asks congregations to look at the ethical issues involved in the production, distribution, and use of food. Recommended actions include supporting farmers’ markets, volunteering for a food pantry, or supporting farm workers’ unions.

The Rev. John Millspaugh, accompanied by members of the Youth Caucus, offered what may have been the most persuasive argument: “Eating is a delight for everyone, not just activists,” he said. “It will be fun to engage in this!”

The proposed nuclear disarmament CSAI would have urged UUs to work with other faith communities toward a dramatic reduction in the world’s nuclear weapons inventories, especially in the U.S. and Russia.

The UUA is midway through its 2006–2010 CSAI on peacemaking. A draft Statement of Conscience will be introduced at the 2009 General Assembly, with a final vote on the UUA’s policy concerning military force at the 2010 GA.


Although the social justice resolutions didn’t stir up debate this year, a bylaw amendment concerning the rules of the Ministerial Fellowship Committee did. A bylaw change authorizing new rules for the MFC, including a provision to terminate a minister’s fellowship status for “incompetence,” provoked lively debate.

The Rev. Burton Carley, the board liaison to the MFC, explained in introducing the bylaw amendment that the MFC rules had been updated for several reasons: to reflect current practice; to remove rules referring to no longer existing rules; to make them more readable; and to address them to all ministers, instead of using the former system of ministerial categories. Changes had been made in the disciplinary section, he said, to make the rules less legalistic and more suited to a credentialing body, such as the MFC.

Controversy erupted over this sentence in the revised rules: “The fellowship of a minister may be terminated by the Ministerial Fellowship Committee for unbecoming conduct, incompetence, or other specified cause.”

The Rev. Daniel Schatz, minister of the BuxMont UU Fellowship in Warrington, Pa., protested the vagueness surrounding the term “incompetence.” “I recognize the good intentions of the amendment,” he said. “However, it is too vaguely phrased.”

The Rev. Wayne Arnason, who serves as the head of the MFC, tried to explain the committee’s sense of the term “incompetence” when someone at the procedural microphone asked for clarification. “When we examine people for ministerial fellowship, they are required to demonstrate competencies in a variety of areas,” he said. “Incompetence is when they’re behaving in ways that demonstrate that either some of those competencies have been lost or that, in fact, our judgment about how well they had them originally was not good.”

Arnason added, “The mantra we have is, ‘A repeated pattern of a minister being unable to maintain healthy ministries.’”

“Ministry is not about achievement,” Schatz protested. “Ministry is about relationship. I fear that this amendment would damage our ministry by encouraging clergy to cover mistakes rather than admit them.”

The Rev. Dr. Paul Johnson, senior minister of the UU Congregation at Shelter Rock in Manhasset, N.Y., raised another concern, saying that the new rules were not explicit about whether ministers could have legal representation during the disciplinary review process.

The Rev. Jory Agate, the UUA’s director of Ministerial Development and one of the authors of the revised rules, said that ministers could have lawyers, but that it wasn’t immediately required. “There may be situations where that is warranted,” she said. “A minister could hire an attorney any time. But how that attorney would be engaged in the review process would be negotiated to the appropriate situation therefore not mandating that every review be set up like a court situation.”

“There are situations where the committee would like to respond to misconduct or incompetence,” she continued, “but the way the rules were written [in the past]—with a hearing, right to an attorney, and cross-examination—basically guaranteed that every response would be a court case,” she said.

Denny Davidoff spoke in favor of the new rules. “We are involved even now as a movement in a deep, and thoughtful, and much needed conversation about excellence in ministry,” she said. “We wouldn’t have this conversation about lifting our standards if so many of us had not experienced, as congregants, incompetence in ministry. There is incompetence in ministry and lay people have felt unempowered to do anything about it but suffer through.”

After an extended debate, UUA moderator Gini Courter called for a vote. Delegates approved the new rules without changes.

A second bylaw amendment acknowledging the merger of the Northeast District with the New Hampshire/Vermont District to form a new Northern New England District passed without discussion.

In addition to the responsive resolution outlining an accountability structure for the Youth and Young Adult Empowerment resolution, delegates also approved a responsive resolution that calls for the continuation of the Consultation on Ministry To and With Youth, also calling for a process to examine young adult ministries. The Consultation on Ministry To and With Youth was a multiyear survey process resulting in a series of recommendations for improved youth ministry.

A third responsive resolution urges the UUA to support affordable health care through its corporate shareholder activism. The Rev. Sydney Morris, chair of the UUA’s Committee on Socially Responsible Investing, proposed the resolution in response to Financial Advisor Dan Brody’s report on Friday. The resolution says that “the UUA will leverage its power through shareholder engagement with the corporate world to further and create avenues for the realization of the right of all people to high-quality health care.”

The General Assembly welcomed six new congregations into the Association:

  • Prairie Circle Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Grayslake, Ill.
  • The Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Rocky Mount, N.C.
  • The Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tupelo, Miss.
  • The Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the Chesapeake in California, Md.
  • The Washington Ethical Society in Takoma, Md. (dually affiliated with the American Ethical Union)
  • WellSprings Congregation in Chester Springs, Pa.

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