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UUA board vows to transform governance

Will ask General Assembly to reduce number of trustees; change would have implications for districts.
By Jane Greer
2.15.10

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UUA Board of Trustees

UUA Board of Trustees at the 2009 GA in Salt Lake City. (Nancy Pierce)

In a special meeting February 4, the Board of Trustees unanimously approved a resolution to pursue comprehensive reforms of the governance of the Unitarian Universalist Association. The immediate goal of the resolution, which would require approval by the 2011 and 2012 General Assemblies, is a smaller board, but other changes would follow.

The brief resolution says the board “will initiate a transformation of governance” at the board, General Assembly, and district and regional levels, although it does not offer detailed plans. In four bullet points, the resolution says the board will ask the General Assembly to amend the UUA bylaws in 2011 and 2012 “to significantly reduce the size of the board.” At the 2010 General Assembly, the resolution says, the board will “continue our substantive discussion [with district presidents and UUA President Peter Morales] of the shift toward regionalization.” The board will continue meeting occasionally outside of Boston “to strengthen relationships with the Association’s Member Congregations.” And the board will engage youth, young adults, and historically marginalized groups “to ensure that their voices are heard in our governance transformation.”

According to a letter from the board that accompanied the resolution, five task forces have examined the UUA’s governance over the past five decades. “These task forces have all described the same basic condition,” the board wrote: “Our governance is too complex. They have observed that we elect leaders but do not authorize them to do their jobs, that the Board of Trustees is too big to be effective, and that General Assembly is too expensive—especially when many delegates are not accountable representatives of their congregation’s priorities.”

The size of the board has long been an issue. The board wrote in its accompanying letter: “With 24 members, the Board resembles a small town meeting more than a functioning board. Additionally, the expense of such a Board is unacceptable.”

Changing the size of the board would also lead to changes in the UUA’s district structure. The current 24-member board includes 19 trustees elected by the UUA’s 19 districts. “Already,” the board’s letter stated, “staffing in districts has begun a shift toward shared resources through ‘regionalization.’ This shift in staffing inevitably raises questions about the continuing purpose of District Boards.”

According to the Rev. Harlan Limpert, UUA vice president of ministries and congregational support, who attended the January board meeting as an observer, many districts are already working cooperatively to share resources and maximize the distribution of services. (UU World will report more extensively on the shift toward regionalization next week.)

Although the board’s letter said that the trustees “have serious questions about the General Assembly,” and although the board received a report from the Fifth Principle Task Force at its January meeting recommending major changes to the General Assembly, the board resolution does not set a timeline or make specific recommendations about GA. (See UU World’s coverage of the Fifth Principle Task Force recommendations.)

The letter does say, however, that “The UUA Board dreams of a time when General Assembly is less about making statements and more about joining lived experience to lived experience and multiplying the power between us and beyond us.”

The board had discussed much of the resolution’s content at its January 13–17 meeting in San Antonio, Tex., but had not finalized the language of the resolution in time to vote on it before adjourning. After a group of trustees finished a draft of the resolution, the board set up a conference call to discuss and vote on the proposal. The February phone call was the first time the board has met “virtually.” More than 60 people joined the call, including 20 trustees and more than 40 observers, including UUA staff and several district presidents.

Linda Laskowski, trustee from the Pacific Central District, emphasized the necessity of engaging in conversation with youth, young adults, and UUs from historically marginalized groups. “We need to look at people typically not heard and make sure they’re heard,” she said during the February 4 conference call. “We’ve put it on the table now that this has to be part of the transformation process.” Laskowski chairs the board’s Linkage working group, which is charged with supporting relationships between the board and its “sources of authority and accountability” within the Policy Governance system.

The board will be sponsoring a panel discussion on youth and young adult issues called “Future Generations of UUs: What Will They Value?” and will be leading one entitled “Governance Transformation from an Antiracist, Antioppressive Lens” at General Assembly.

When the board held its meeting in San Antonio in January, it was one of the first times that it had ventured outside of Boston, with the exception of meetings held at General Assembly. According to the board’s resolution, this will happen more often. “A vital component of Policy Governance is trust-building with sources of accountability and authority,” said the Rev. Jake Morrill, trustee from the Thomas Jefferson District, during the call. “Going to where congregations are and hearing from them and learning from them is of the highest value for our effectiveness.”

UUA Moderator Gini Courter said that it was important for the board to pass the motion now, rather than waiting until its April board meeting because it will affect different committees in their work this spring. The Nominating Committee, Courter said, will be busy seeking candidates to fill positions that might not exist in the future. The General Assembly Planning Committee will be meeting before the April board meeting and might want to know the board’s intentions in advance. “If we were passing [this motion] in April, by the time word got out, it would be just two months ahead of GA,” Courter said. “We’re going to have substantial conversation about this at GA, and part of the goal is to limit the number of people who get to GA and say, ‘I’ve never heard of this.’”

Courter was pleased with the level of interest in the board’s conference call. “We’ll definitely use it again,” she said. “I was particularly struck by [Mountain Desert District President] Jim Turner’s comment that he would never have come to Boston for an hour-long conversation. Yet, we were able to let him be present, not only to observe but to offer some comments.”


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