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'I need to love the world enough to want to save it'

UUA Moderator Gini Courter discusses personal motivation and organizational challenges facing the Unitarian Universalist Association.
By Donald E. Skinner

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Gini Courter

Gini Courter (Courtesy of the UUA)

Gini Courter, moderator of the Unitarian Universalist Association, spoke with UU World in February about her service to the UUA and about several initiatives of the Board of Trustees.

Courter is running unopposed for a second four-year term at the 2009 General Assembly in Salt Lake City. As moderator, Courter presides over the UUA General Assembly and the board. She has served as moderator since October 2003, when the board appointed her to replace Moderator Diane Olson, who had resigned. Courter was elected to a full term in 2005.

What has given you the most satisfaction from your six years as moderator?

There has been increased clarity about how the board is in relationship with congregations. And there’s a greater sense of what the board is supposed to be doing relationally within Unitarian Universalism. As an example: In October the board met with the executive committee of the UU Ministers Association, something that hasn’t happened in recent memory. The board also met with representatives of the UU Musicians Network and will probably meet with LREDA [the Liberal Religious Educators Association]. We’re trying to build lateral relationships. We have sent board members to meet with the UU Service Committee board. We want to create a meeting with the boards of the theological schools. We’re figuring out lateral relationships and not mistaking them for the stakeholder constituencies we have had in the past.

The board has been working toward adopting a policy governance system. How is that coming?

The move to policy governance is a tool to get our governance right. Policy governance isn’t the only form of governance out there, but for an Association like ours, it is clearly the best. By the time we finish, it will have almost been a decade since we took up policy governance. It’s a slow process. It requires us to ask questions about our values and who is accountable for having particular things done well. The board is getting its feet on the ground as a governing board.

How else has the board changed, in your view?

The board is far more open and transparent than it has ever been. In the past five years the agenda has been published three weeks in advance, and working group agendas are published two weeks in advance. We always have an observer now, generally someone from the District Presidents Association, who prepares notes on each meeting and makes them available online. With increased electronic communication, it’s easier to sit down and address the board now. Also, two-thirds of board members are on Facebook. We get input in many ways from lots of people.

What’s happening with the Congregations Come First initiative?

The third and most recent report of CCF was issued almost a year ago. A decision was made not to meet during the current campaign for UUA president. The group will fire back up next fall. Members are doing a critical piece of work in looking at questions like economies of scale, efficiencies, and fairness in how we allocate resources to congregations—and about the need to have different-sized structures in our movement. Some districts have many hundreds who come to their annual meeting. But others may draw a hundred people, tops. We need the ability to consider different sizes of geographical support structures. That’s especially important in a declining economy, when we have fewer resources.

Another initiative you and the board are involved with is the Fifth Principle Task Force.

This is related to Congregations Come First. This group is exploring questions like: How often should we hold General Assembly? Should we have it every year—every other year, like some other faith communities? Then, what would we do in the off years?

General Assembly does several things incredibly well. It trains lay leaders. How will that happen if we have GA only half as often? There are real conversations going on around this.

The challenge for us, as we look at how the UUA is organized, is that in many areas we are perfectly organized—for the late 1800s. We’re taking a look at how we can optimize ourselves to better minister to congregations and to those who do our justice work in the world.

The issue of independent affiliate organizations has been a challenging and time-consuming one in the past several years for you and the board. The determination was made that it wasn’t the proper function of the board to have these groups so closely connected to it. The board has pared affiliate groups down to 6, from 46. Where are we in this process?

I’d like to think some of the reactivity around this is behind us. The corrective was pretty painful. For a long time the board had provided a mechanism for granting these groups access to [General Assembly] workshop slots, reduced-price advertising in UU World, and inclusion in the UUA Directory. It didn’t make sense for the board to be connected so closely to these groups. This was not governance work, except rarely. This issue is behind us in that the board is not going to spend a lot of time reimagining independent affiliates.

[Author’s note: The board voted in January 2009 to stop granting independent affiliate status in 2010, pending the emergence of new forms of interaction between independent organizations and the UUA staff.]

Are there ways in which you have been changed by serving as moderator?

Being moderator during and after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in 2005 really shaped me and my service in some important ways. You can’t spend much time in the Gulf without deepening your feelings about racism. Spending time with our congregations there and with community groups and our partners in the Gulf has been a critical piece of not just my leadership but also my personal growth.

It also deepened my feelings about the need for hands-on work. Hands-on work for me is part of how I embody my faithfulness. I learned it from my father and lots of other folks I grew up with. The idea that people who care, working together, can be a vehicle for justice in the world is pretty central to me. In the center of spirituality and my faith is an understanding that I need to love the world enough to want to save it.

How else am I changed? I know more about governance than I ever thought I would. In 2006 I read 52 governance books—one a week. I also know a lot about who we are as a people.

What keeps you going?

I love spending time with our congregations and our leaders. I had a wonderful experience in October at the Mid-South District’s Healthy Congregation Conference. Earlier this month I met with religious educators and ministers in the Metro New York District, talking about how we would reshape our understandings if … one goal was to have every child be an adult UU. I love working with the UUA board. We have one of the best boards we’ve ever had. They’re smart and work hard and believe Unitarian Universalism has a specific place in the world and that it would be a lesser place without us. The members are passionate about our faith.

What will be on your agenda in the next four years?

There are so many balls up in the air. Certainly, completing the transition to policy governance is at the top of the list. It’s difficult for the board to govern with one foot in policy governance and one foot out. We are having wonderful conversations with both of the candidates for UUA president [Laurel Hallman and Peter Morales].

We’ll also be talking about Excellence in Ministry [an initiative focused on recruitment of professional ministers, availability of resources, and continuing education for clergy and laity].

Another thing for the board is “owner linkage”—for the board to figure out how to be in authentic meaningful and accountable relationship with our congregations. That’s going to take some work. We will be doing all of our work with smaller budgets. We want to leverage technology so we can operate smarter, more affordably, more sustainably. It’s not a small challenge. We’ve been assuming every meeting must be face-to-face and that we have to invite a cast of thousands. We can’t afford every major decision …to be very slow. We have to learn to trust one another better.

We have to continue our work on racism and multiculturalism and figure out how in the world we are going to have a conversation about class that’s real—class and multiculturalism. My first congregation was at Flint, Mich. We had members who were unemployed and those who were millionaires. Class is a really hard conversation for us. And if we can’t talk about class, we can’t talk about the shrinking middle class that we are in the middle of. People tend to think we are upper middle class. Most of us are not. We’ve gone in 25 years in this country from having a robust middle class to almost no middle class.

Anything else you hope to do in your next term?

Yes. I hope I get to sing more.

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