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UUA Board urges repudiation of 'Doctrine of Discovery'

Meeting in New Orleans, board names moderator candidates, mulls future of UUA headquarters and social justice resolutions.
By Michelle Bates Deakin
1.30.12

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Members of the UUA Board of Trustees (Lew Phinney)

Members of the UUA Board of Trustees volunteered at the New Orleans African American Museum. (Courtesy of Lew Phinney)

The Unitarian Universalist Association Board of Trustees met in New Orleans in mid-January, where they named two candidates to run for moderator in 2013 and discussed the fate of Actions of Immediate Witness with the Commission on Social Witness. Trustees also met and worshipped with members of three New Orleans-area congregations and listened to their stories of struggle during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

In other business at its Jan. 18–22 meeting, the board voted to place a resolution regarding the “Doctrine of Discovery” on the 2012 Justice General Assembly agenda. And it approved a policy to make audio recordings of board proceedings available on request.

Trustees and members of the UUA administration also engaged in tense discussions regarding long-term plans for the association’s headquarters and regarding the monitoring reports the administration provides about its efforts to meet the board’s “Global Ends” for the association.

Before the board’s business got underway, 13 trustees arrived early to do volunteer work in the New Orleans community, joined by Ted Fetter, president of the District Presidents Association, and Carl McCargo, active UU volunteer and husband of trustee Jackie Shanti. Staying in bunk beds in the Center for Ethical Living and Social Justice Renewal, which is housed in the First UU Church of New Orleans, the board members lent a hand at the New Orleans Mission, the New Orleans African American Museum, and a food bank, cleaned walking trails in the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve, and did yard and repair work at the area congregations.

Throughout the meeting, board members paused in their official business to engage with the New Orleans community and reflect on the legacy of Hurricane Katrina, which struck in 2005. Trustees attended a workshop on anti-racism and anti-oppression in the wake of Katrina. Groups of trustees visited each of the three New Orleans-area churches for discussions, meals, and a worship service. The board plans to discuss in depth at its April meeting in Boston what members learned about the congregations’ experiences and the UUA’s response to Katrina.


Two nominated to run for moderator

In executive session, trustees selected two nominees to run for the position of UUA moderator at the 2013 General Assembly, Jim Key and Tamara Payne-Alex. (See related story.). Jim Key, a member of the UU Fellowship of Beaufort, N.C., has served as president of the Southeast District and currently chairs the UUA Audit Committee. Tamara Payne-Alex, a member of First Unitarian Church of San Jose, Calif., is a former member of the UUA Board of Trustees and the Ministerial Fellowship Committee. Other candidates may run by petition for the election in June 2013 that will determine Moderator Gini Courter’s successor.

Commission on Social Witness asks about its role

Four members of the Commission on Social Witness (CSW) spoke to the board seeking a common understanding of the CSW’s mission and the place of social witness at General Assemblies and within the UUA overall.

The CSW is elected by the General Assembly and steers the social witness resolutions process at GA, including the Congregational Study/Action Issue and Statement of Conscience process, and the annual Actions of Immediate Witness (AIW) petition process. In recent years some trustees have criticized the AIW process for taking up too much GA plenary time, involving individuals rather than congregations, and creating proposals that are not implemented after they are adopted. The 2011 General Assembly adopted a bylaw amendment proposed by the CSW to address concerns about the process, which reduces the number of AIWs delegates may vote on to three from six starting in 2013. The same amendment eliminated AIWs entirely from the 2012 Justice General Assembly, in response to a 2010 business resolution stipulating that minimal denominational business be conducted at the 2012 meeting.

David May, CSW chair, expressed concern that Courter’s Moderator’s Report during the closing plenary of the 2011 General Assembly “mis-described the CSW’s proposal to the board, which reduced the number of Actions of Immediate Witness by half, as a rejection of a request by the board for a substantive change for at least one year. We also believe that this public rebuke violated basic principles of right relations by not being previously communicated to us in private, and it was presented at the very end of the General Assembly with no practical way for us to publicly respond.”

May said he hoped that the CSW and the board could find ways to communicate directly. Moderator Gini Courter apologized to the CSW. “I could see that it is very reasonable for you all to feel that I rebuked you. I apologize for that. And we’ll talk differently in the future,” she said.

May said the CSW has been seeking ideas for how to reform the AIW process, including speaking with Daniel McKanan, the Ralph Waldo Emerson Unitarian Universalist Association Senior Lecturer in Divinity at Harvard Divinity School. The CSW members presented four ideas they developed* after consulting with McKanan and others about opportunities for immediate witness at GA. The ideas included: having AIWs proposed by congregations; having congregations propose social action projects to be performed at GA; handling AIWs like responsive resolutions, being without petitions and mini-assemblies; and setting aside GA time for issue formulation by delegates.

Board members discussed the idea. Several trustees expressed reservations with AIWs, but the board did not vote on any action. The Rev. Heather Starr, a member of the CSW, voiced her confusion about responsibility for the process. The members of the CSW “are charged with protecting the process articulated in the bylaws, and that puts us in an adversarial process with you, because you’re having a larger conversation,” she said. “There is a need for clarity about who is working on which questions.”

Courter called that a “brilliant observation.” The conversation with the CSW was “long overdue,” Courter said, “and we need to do more of it.”

Board introduces resolution on Doctrine of Discovery

The board then took up a discussion of “The Doctrine of Discovery,” which it will ask the 2012 General Assembly to repudiate. In a report, the board described the Doctrine of Discovery as “a principle of law developed in a series of 15th century Papal bulls and 16th century charters by Christian European monarchs on the basis of which much of the rest of the world was explored and colonized by Europeans.” The series of rules gave legal and theological justification for the conquest of indigenous people and the appropriation of their land and resources.

The Rev. Dr. Michael Tino, minister of the UU Fellowship of Northern Westchester, in Mt. Kisco, N.Y., and trustee from the Metropolitan New York District, presented the issue to the board. Tino said that partner organizations in Arizona had requested that UUA delegates have an opportunity to repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery. “There has been a movement of indigenous peoples and their allies worldwide to get organizations, religious bodies, and nations to repudiate this doctrine,” he said, and to fully implement the tenets of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (PDF).

Tino presented a motion to place a responsive resolution on the 2012 GA agenda, and the board approved it unanimously.

The Rev. Clyde Grubbs, trustee-at-large and a Texas Cherokee, became choked up with emotion during the discussion. “For almost my whole life as a Unitarian Universalist, this has been ignored,” he said. “I’ve seen 15 Actions of Immediate Witness having to do with indigenous communities go down without even making the cut,” he said. “I want to emphasize how relieved I am.”

In other business, the board:

  • Adopted a policy on providing audio recordings of board meetings. The board agreed to record and archive business proceedings of the board—with the exception of executive sessions—and to make them available to members of UUA congregations upon request. The action followed a nearly yearlong discussion of whether to record board meetings and, if so, how to make them available.

  • Voted to transfer direct responsibility for the Panel on Theological Education to the president of the UUA.

  • Agreed that committee appointment terms begin at the close of the regular GA in odd-numbered years.

  • Voted to admit the UU Congregation of Petoskey, Mich., to the UUA.

  • Decided that the board will hold its January 2013 meeting in Philadelphia, Pa.


The future of UUA headquarters

During the meeting, the board and the administration labored to discuss two weighty issues: the location of the UUA headquarters and the monitoring reports that the administration submits to the board.

UUA President Peter Morales asked for time on the agenda to discuss the association’s real estate needs. “We have a historic opportunity to move forward to provide our staff with a state-of-the-art facility and simultaneously provide more resources when resources are scarce,” he said. Morales asked the board to agree in principle to “move forward” and make a decision quickly if he were to present them with plans for a specific property.

The UUA owns three properties on Beacon Hill, a historic neighborhood in the center of Boston. The headquarters building is at 25 Beacon Street, next to the Massachusetts State House and across from Boston Common. Beacon Press and other UUA offices are located at 41 Mount Vernon Street, a block north of UUA headquarters. The UUA also owns the Eliot and Pickett Houses at 6 and 7 Mount Vernon Place, a bed-and-breakfast immediately behind the headquarters building.

The association’s properties on Boston’s Beacon Hill have been appraised at a high value because of the current value of high-end residential property in the neighborhood, compared to the lower value of commercial properties to which the association might relocate. The UUA had made a preliminary bid to purchase a Hebrew College property in Newton, Mass., but plans for that purchase stalled.

David Jackoway, trustee from the Heartland District, questioned what he saw as an all-or-nothing approach of either staying in Boston or moving to another city. “I don’t want to delay, but I don’t want to rush either,” he said. “I’d be interested in identifying what the criteria are for a new location so if it doesn’t have that criteria we won’t consider it.”

The Rev. Sarah Stewart, trustee from the Northern New England District and minister of the Starr King UU Fellowship in Plymouth, N.H., said that although she agreed with the financial argument for moving, she “felt the need for a long-term strategic plan to ground any decision about real estate.”

The Rev. Jake Morrill, trustee from the Southeast District and minister of the Oak Ridge, Tenn., UU Church, described the conversation as “at an impasse,” because the administration was not supplying the board with the justifications it needed to make a decision.

Natalia Averett, trustee from the Joseph Priestley District, said that she was a “believer in strategic planning and adaptive leadership.” She noted that UUA staff who advise congregations on capital campaigns stress not to raise money without a strategic plan. However, she believed the administration was asking the board to make a major real estate decision without a strategic plan.

Tim Brennan, UUA treasurer and chief financial officer, said that the administration is willing to put together a plan that explains its thinking behind real estate decisions and the UUA’s facility needs over the next 10 to 15 years.

UUA Executive Vice President Kay Montgomery said that there was a gap in what the administration had done around researching real estate decisions and what it had articulated to the board. She called it an “interesting Policy Governance dilemma” about what are board decisions and what are staff decisions.

The Rev. Jeanne Pupke, senior minister of First UU Church of Richmond, Va., and trustee-at-large, observed that Unitarian Universalists may be troubled to learn of discussions to sell “what to them feels like the bedrock of their religion,” she said. The headquarters building at 25 Beacon St., she said, “has become symbolic for them in a way that is almost mythological,” and a building sale could make them “sad, angry, or disappointed.”

Morales agreed that the staff would draft a strategic plan and submit it to the board by the end of March. He also said he hoped the board would be willing to consider a forthcoming proposal and move quickly on it.

Continued tension over Policy Governance reports

Board members and the administration also differed on whether the administration was providing sufficient information in its “monitoring reports” to demonstrate that it was meeting the “Global Ends” of the association. The Ends are the “shared vision” of the association, developed by the board as part of the Policy Governance model it adopted in 2009. The Ends provide, among other things, that “the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association will inspire people to lead lives of humility and purpose, connection and service, thereby transforming themselves and the world.”

Policy Governance requires that the administration document for the board, through monitoring reports, how it is meeting those Ends. The board voted to require the administration to file an interim report with additional data and information about how the administration is meeting the Ends by March 27. The board found that the operational definitions provided for several of the monitoring reports were unreasonable.

Morales said that he thought the likelihood of the board being satisfied by the interim report was “vanishingly small—something barely higher than the sun rising in the West.”

Morales told the trustees that the relationship between the staff and the board was the worst it has ever been in the history of the association.

Courter was displeased with his characterization of the relationship. She said that some would say the “high-water mark” for the board was when it did nothing and would smile and nod at the administration. “That’s not our measurement,” Courter said, adding that board members were being asked questions about the association’s budget and why there was no viable youth organization. “We are here to ask the difficult questions that we get asked directly,” she said.

Some members were clearly made uncomfortable by the disagreements. Pupke observed that interpersonal relationships were frayed. Linda Laskowski, trustee from the Pacific Central District, said that she wanted to work more closely with the staff and work toward more collaboration.

However, others maintained the conversation was not uncomfortable. “I’m hearing people are uncomfortable, and I’m feeling fine,” Averett said, adding that white, educated people feel uncomfortable with disagreement. She said she did not accept the notion that the board was being dysfunctional because they were expressing disagreement. “Honest conversation in some cultures is okay. It proves you are alive, as my mother said.”

Grubbs thanked her for saying “what needed to be said. When a wound is healing, there is a growing edge of scar tissue.”

The conversation ended with the board passing the motion finding the operational definitions of the monitoring report unreasonable and requiring the interim report.


The board concluded its time together at a Sunday morning service at First UU Church of New Orleans. The Rev. Melanie Morel-Ensminger, consulting minister at First Church and North Shore UU in LaCombe, La., the Rev. Jim VanderWeele, minister at Community Church UU in New Orleans, and Terry Van Brunt, chair of the worship committee at North Shore UU, together led a “Jazz Funeral for the Old Year,” complete with brass ensemble and an open casket, into which people could deposit last year’s burdens written on a slip of paper. At the end of the service, the band played “When the Saints Go Marching In,” and marched around the sanctuary—rebuilt since Katrina’s floods—as trustees and members of the three area congregations danced and sang behind them.


Correction 1.31.12: An earlier version of this story inaccurately characterized the Commission on Social Witness's proposals as having been drafted by Harvard Divinity School's Daniel McKanan. The CSW developed the proposals after consulting with McKanan and others. Click here to return to the corrected paragraph.

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