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UUA President Peter Morales and Moderator Jim Key laughed during a presentation by the Rev. Harlan Limpert, chief operating officer, at the October 17–20 meeting of the UUA Board of Trustees in Boston

Smaller board shows new spirit of collaboration

Trustees approve New Orleans as site of 2017 General Assembly, express interest in report of 55 emerging congregations.
By Christopher L. Walton
10.28.13

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The new, smaller Board of Trustees of the Unitarian Universalist Association met in Boston for its October meeting, with seven new members, including a new moderator, and what many described as a new spirit of collaboration.

Trustees and senior staff of the UUA described the first full meeting of a smaller, reconfigured board in hopeful, even glowing, terms. “This is the meeting with the board that I always hoped to have and had despaired of having,” said UUA President Peter Morales as the October 17–20 gathering drew to a close.

“I want to celebrate,” said Vice Moderator Donna Harrison, a member of First UU Church in San Antonio, Texas, who was elected to the board in 2009. “A lot of what we experienced was what we envisioned in the 2010 resolution [Transforming Governance for the Second Half-Century]. What we just experienced was a real success, and I hope the trustees who prepared the way for us feel the success of it.”

“The anticipated agility and other benefits of a smaller board were evident from the start,” wrote newly elected Moderator Jim Key in a letter from the board that will be published soon on UUA.org. [Update: It was published Monday afternoon, October 28.]

The board and administration have had a sometimes strained relationship in recent years as the board adopted and implemented Policy Governance, but participants in the October meeting pointed to several factors that made this meeting different. The board was smaller, with 14 rather than 23 elected trustees. The board stopped meeting in multiple smaller working groups, and conducted all of its business as a committee of the whole. Meeting times were shorter, but the agenda allowed for longer conversations on most topics. (Saturday afternoon’s session ended more than an hour ahead of schedule.) And half of the trustees—including Key—were new to the board.

The board also has a new financial advisor in Larry Ladd, a member of First Church in Boston, who was appointed to replace Ed Merck. Merck was elected by the General Assembly in June, but resigned for personal reasons in July. Ladd served as financial advisor before, from 1997 to 2005.

Trustees expressed gratitude for their September retreat, where they and the senior staff focused on building relationships and developing a covenant for their work together, and for a half-day conversation about covenant at the start of the October meeting facilitated by the Rev. Dr. Linda Olson Peebles, president of the UU Ministers Association. The Rev. Sarah Stewart, a trustee who serves as minister of Starr King UU Fellowship in Plymouth, N.H., said, “How refreshing it was to begin our time together in a deep, religious, theological conversation. That makes a huge difference in the character of our work.”

Among other actions, the board approved New Orleans as the site of the 2017 UUA General Assembly; approved an increase of $5 in the full-time registration fee for the 2014 General Assembly; accepted Original Blessing, a new congregation in Brooklyn, N.Y., into UUA membership; and accepted a monitoring report on the UUA’s financial practices, in which the administration declared compliance with all nine relevant policies.

The board also responded with interest to reports that the UUA is aware of and working with 55 emerging congregations, that the UUA is developing a new branding and marketing plan, and that the UUA Health Plan is closely monitoring possible effects of the Affordable Care Act.

Trustees spent most of their time talking through actions they might introduce next year about the transformation of General Assembly. Those reforms are likely to stop short of switching to a biennial GA, however.

The board also discussed the UUA’s committee structure, the handling of complaints about boundary violations by clergy, and the simplification of policies governing the Association.

Purpose of GA

Building on conversations about the purpose of General Assembly started by the Fifth Principle Task Force in 2008 and revived by the board last year, trustees talked about ways the General Assembly could better serve its governance role. They seemed to back away from one concrete proposal they were considering in January—shifting to a biennial GA—because, as Harrison explained, the financial savings of meeting every other year could not begin to cover the costs of subsidizing delegate participation, another of the task force’s key proposals.

The Rev. Dr. Terasa Cooley, officer for Program and Strategy at the UUA, cautioned the trustees that overemphasizing the governance dimension of GA could drive participants away. Pointing to research about growing disinterest in organized religion throughout the United States, she said, “People are less interested in doing institutional business. Focusing more on the purpose of faith in the world and less on institutional business or governance is more likely to feel vital.”

The Rev. Clyde Grubbs, a trustee serving as minister of the Universalist Society of Salem, Mass., replied, “If governance is participation in decisions that affect their lives, they’ll be interested. The forms are what [frustrate] them.”

The Rev. Rob Eller-Isaacs, a trustee and co-minister of Unity Church–Unitarian in St. Paul, Minn., who is also a Policy Governance consultant, proposed thinking of the business of the General Assembly as evaluating the Ends of the Association with programs designed on a small group ministry model. “The program of the Assembly, the enrichment, would all be keyed to inform and enrich those small group conversations,” he suggested.

Harrison said she could imagine many ways of engaging people who come to GA in conversation around the Ends. “When I look at the powers and duties of the GA [described by the UUA bylaws], that section doesn’t require us to sit in a big hall with voting cards. It doesn’t tell us how to do that work. Where the bylaws do get us in trouble are sections around Congregational Study/Action Issues [CSAIs] and Actions of Immediate Witness [AIWs].”

The bylaws describe the processes that generate the CSAI and AIW social witness resolutions in much more detail than other aspects of GA business. The trustees agreed that delegates find value in the social witness resolutions process, even as they explored other approaches to governing the Association.

Harrison said she intends to present several specific proposals for changes the board might introduce in time for discussion with delegates at the 2014 General Assembly, so that a motion could be brought to the 2015 General Assembly for a vote.

Evaluating committees

The trustees spent more than an hour discussing the governance function of the variety of committees that report to the General Assembly or to the board. Stewart, who is leading a yearlong series of conversations about the UUA’s committees, asked trustees to focus for now on the committees explicitly named in the bylaws. “Which End does each committee further the most when it’s doing its work effectively?” she asked her colleagues, who divided into three groups for discussion.

They concentrated their attention on the Commission on Appraisal, the Commission on Social Witness, the General Assembly Planning Committee, and the Board of Review, raising questions about the purpose of each and its relationship to the Ends and about the need to elect rather than appoint members. (The board had discussed some of these questions in its April 2010 meeting, too.)

Stewart said the board will take a more active role in asking committees about their budgets, which the board is responsible for setting; this fall, the Treasurer’s office will distribute budget information about each committee and provide a way for the board to seek budget proposals from each committee. Trustees considered asking committees to justify their budget requests in terms of compliance with their charges and the Ends of the Association, but decided it would be impractical in this year’s budget cycle.

Consultant offers advice

The board promised to evaluate and simplify the policies that govern the UUA. Over the course of several hours throughout the weekend, trustees discussed the number of policies the board is currently monitoring and talked about ways to improve the Global Ends monitoring process that has frustrated the board and administration.

Eric Craymer, the governance consultant the UUA hired this summer, described a common complaint he heard in his conversations with trustees and senior staff: “There are an awful lot of policies,” he said, and monitoring them “is an onerous task for everyone.”

Craymer asked for reflections on the Global Ends monitoring process, which has generated the most friction between the board and staff. Grubbs, who has served on the board since 2011, said the process “taught many of us that we needed new Ends. The Ends were hard to measure.” (The board adopted a full revision of the Ends in June 2013.)

Stewart, who also joined the board in 2011, said she had not felt confident that the administration’s reports showed the metrics the staff uses to evaluate its work. “We got a survey,” she said, “but I don’t believe that survey data was actually being used by staff to monitor their own performance.”

Eller-Isaacs, who is new to the board, linked tensions between the board and the administration to what he called the “intervention mentality” of UUA President Peter Morales and former UUA Moderator Gini Courter. “Peter ran [for president] to fix a broken system. Gini [Courter] became moderator to change a system,” he said. “When you’re involved in an intervention, you tend to distrust that in which you’re intervening until you believe your intervention is successful. The proliferation of policies, often negative, was an expression of distrust.”

The Rev. Harlan Limpert, chief operating officer, observed that the number of policies and the process of monitoring them restricted conversation between the board and the trustees. “To the extent that the board communicates through policy and the administration communicates through monitoring reports, we haven’t had a conversation.”

Morales said he thought the frustration on both sides could be addressed if the board and administration collaborated on developing the interpretations and metrics used to evaluate policy.

Moderator Jim Key agreed. “I think the solution is space for conversation about interpretation,” he said.

Craymer gave the board several pieces of advice as it begins reviewing its policies. “There’s nothing that requires you to comply with every interpretation of Policy Governance as long as you’re congruent with your values and Policy Governance’s Ten Principles,” he said. For example, he recommended that the board move away from the common Policy Governance practice of writing policies in negative language, such as “The executive shall not fail to . . .” “There are now people who have figured out that policies don’t have to be written in ‘shall nots,’” he said.

Craymer also said that too much oversight limits staff effectiveness. “Any reasonable interpretation is the point where the board has just enough control to know that the system is safe,” he said. And he suggested that many policies need only occasional monitoring reports. “Nothing says you have to monitor every policy every so often.”

The board voted to authorize its Governance Working Group “to conduct a comprehensive review of UUA policies with the intent to reduce their number and more fully align the monitoring process to the stated Ends of the Association.” How much could the number of policies be reduced? In one exercise, trustees spent time going over the policies about the board itself—and agreed that only the preamble to Policy 3.1 (“Governing Style”) should be policy. All 32 sub-policies belonged in an orientation manual, they said, and should not be expressed as policy.

Emerging congregations, new branding, UUA finances

The board’s agenda included an hour and a half for a report from the president, a substantial increase over recent years, when the president was allotted little or no time to make a presentation.

Morales reported on broad cultural shifts that present challenges and opportunities to UU congregations and to the UUA. “One of our challenges is a cultural one,” he said. “If you look at our values—how our values align with the emerging culture—there is amazing alignment. But our institutional form and practice is a very old-line, Protestant form of practice. There is a gap between where our ideas and values are and where our practices are.” So the UUA is shifting from providing programs and resources for existing congregations to also promoting culture change, he said.

Morales turned a large portion of his time over to Cooley, who said she wanted to draw the board’s attention to assumptions behind the administration’s strategy. “We have been moving from the assumption that it’s our job to tell people what to do to recognizing great things that others are doing,” Cooley said.

She told trustees that the UUA is aware of 55 emerging congregations and 12 nontraditional UU communities that are not formally part of the UUA, although field staff are working with them. “We want a way to recognize emerging groups now, rather than wait until they become formal, legal congregations,” Cooley said, adding that the UUA is developing an experimental administrative process that might give the board a way to recognize emerging groups, affinity groups, and unconventional congregations.

The UUA is also working with two firms to develop new branding and marketing materials for the Association, Cooley said. “We’re not just trying to find a nice tagline and a nice logo. We’re trying to answer, ‘Who are we?’ ‘What do we do?’ ‘Why does it matter?’”

The UUA is currently refining and testing a “branding framework.” Next steps will include developing a logo and tagline, redesigning the UUA’s web presence to “make our message clear,” and integrating the new branding themes throughout all departments.

Tim Brennan, in his report as treasurer and chief financial officer, told the trustees that bids for the UUA’s Beacon Hill properties started arriving on Friday, October 18. He said 170 groups had signed confidentiality agreements to learn more about the properties, and 60 had toured the buildings. Bids from contractors for the remodeling of the UUA’s new headquarters in Boston’s Seaport District were due a week later. Brennan said the UUA is currently arranging for bank loans to finance the $9 to $10 million construction project at 24 Farnsworth St.

Brennan also took questions on how the Affordable Care Act could affect the UUA’s Health Plan, which insures employees of UU organizations nationwide. “That’s a very complicated subject,” he said, “and the Health Plan board spent hours on it.” He said he did not anticipate any significant effect in the next year, but the insurance companies participating in the exchanges are offering below-market plans that will be hard to compete with indefinitely. He said the Health Plan’s strategy is to keep premiums competitive while offering policies that promote UU values. New rates and features will be introduced in November. The board will discuss the Health Plan in greater detail in January.

Boundary violations, responsive resolutions, and more

The board also discussed several other matters.

  • Trustees met in executive session to discuss Moderator Jim Key’s conversations with individuals who had brought complaints about ministerial misconduct to the UUA, following up on commitments he and several other trustees had made in response to a petition about clergy misconduct. Olson Peebles, representing the UU Ministers Association, joined the board for its conversation. Trustee Natty Averett, a member of the UU Church of Arlington, Va., will convene a Congregational Boundaries working group to meet with the Ministerial Fellowship Committee and UUA senior staff to review processes for handling complaints.

  • The board discussed ways to respond to concerns raised by General Assembly responsive resolutions, especially the 2013 resolution “Deepen Our Commitment to An Anti-Oppressive, Multicultural Unitarian Universalist Association” and the 2008 resolution “Youth and Young Adult Empowerment Resolution: Accountability.” The board informally agreed to update the General Assembly on both subjects in 2014 and to continue to hold accountability to traditionally marginalized people and to youth and young adults as central concerns. Trustees also asked for a longer conversation with the administration about its vision for ministry with youth and young adults.

  • The board authorized its executive committee to approve changes to the capital budget later this month when the UUA chooses a contractor for the renovations of its new headquarters at 24 Farnsworth Street. The board is likely to meet by phone in executive session to approve the sale of the Beacon Hill properties in November.

  • The board voted to indemnify the trustees of the Liberal Religious Charitable Society Inc. from any potential suits against their decision to transfer their $9 million trust to the UUA.

  • Trustees adopted a new board covenant.

  • And the board approved the nomination of four people to the Ministerial Fellowship Committee’s regional subcommittees: Connie Moore, the Rev. Wayne Walder, the Rev. Paul Langston-Daley, and the Rev. Nadine Swahnberg.

In addition to discussing board business, trustees travelled across the Charles River to Cambridge, Mass., to meet for the first time in many years with the board of trustees and senior staff of the UU Service Committee. And on Sunday morning, trustees divided into two groups and attended services at two Boston congregations, Arlington Street Church and First Church.


Photograph (above): UUA President Peter Morales and Moderator Jim Key laughed during a presentation by the Rev. Harlan Limpert, chief operating officer, at the October 17–20 meeting of the UUA Board of Trustees in Boston (Dea Brayden). See sidebar for links to related resources.

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