Monday, June 29, 2009

Status Quo is not an Option (Sean)

Photo by needlessspaces

Saturday afternoon I attended a session on the work of the Fifth Principle Task Force (FPTF), after hearing the Task Force's report in Plenary earlier in the day. I'm not sure where I was when they populated this TF, but I would have volunteered in an instant, as the subject is near and dear to my heart.

I will not rehash their interim findings -- you can see their "report" in slide form here:

In brief summary, the charge and subsequent findings of the TF suggest that the supposedly democratic process by which we govern the affairs of the association is fundamentally broken. In short, the process by which delegates are chosen and then charged to attend GA does not reflect true democratic principles. In many (most?) cases, delegates are self-selected, often on the basis of having sufficient personal funds to attend. (Many will argue with this point -- to be clear, I am not saying this is universally true, but it is true in enough cases to be of concern.)

I will cite my own experience as a case in point. I have been to five General Assemblies, starting with Boston in 2003, then Fort Worth, Saint Louis, and Portland in quick succession from 2005-2007, and finally here in Salt Lake in 2009.

My first time at GA I was not even registered. We did not yet live on the road in our bus, and we attended a brick-and-mortar congregation in Palo Alto, California. Louise had been a long-time lay leader in that congregation, culminating in chairing the BOT, and was sent to that GA by the congregation as a delegate. This made sense to me; I went along for the ride as the sidekick/husband. At that time, I had not fully committed to the faith, and certainly did not see myself as ever being involved in governance.

I confess I did not know what happened inside the hallowed halls of Plenary, nor did I care. The look and feel of GA was quite familiar to me, however -- in a former life, I was very heavily involved in an even larger society that was governed by volunteers through deliberative process and which put on two large symposium/trade show events annually, with an average attendance of 6,000-7,000. At various times I sat on or chaired the committees of that organization that organized the seminars, symposia, and trade shows, and concluded my decade and a half with that organization with a stint on the board, and as treasurer. While GA may seem like a large undertaking to many who attend, to my eyes it was actually a rather smallish affair.

I flitted around the Boston event as much as I could without an attendee badge, taking advantage of those events open to the public (including a few hours in the exhibit hall), and socializing with people in the public spaces and at meals. It is, perhaps, a dirty little secret that one can come to one of these conferences and do a great deal of interacting without ever paying a registration fee -- facility rules and sometimes statutes preclude an organization from excluding anyone from any space considered "public," which includes hotel hallways and often convention center areas outside of the meeting rooms themselves, particularly if those spaces are not being billed to the organization as booked square footage.

I naturally assumed that Louise was off doing "representative government" and that, of course, everyone else there was, too, having been duly elected by their congregations through a democratic process.

Two years later, in our first year of nomadic life, Louise suggested to me that we should attend GA in Fort Worth. Now, by this time I had fully converted to the faith (if one can even use that phrase in UUism), and we were dues-paying members of this very congregation, the Church of the Larger Fellowship. I was eager to attend, from the perspective that this would be an opportunity to meet other CLF members, our ministers, and the folks in the office who support us. Plus, secretly, I love conferences -- why else would I spend a dozen or so years volunteering to work them.

Then Louise told me she would be a delegate for the CLF. Whoa -- how does that work? Apparently, you just ask. Well, OK -- I'm still not well-enough versed in things to think I can be part of governance, and I'm certain, of course, that this is really just a CLF thing -- it makes sense that we'd have trouble democratically electing and then charging our delegates, given the nature of our congregation. At this point, I am still convinced that what goes on in the Plenary hall, where I still have not ventured, is representative governance at its best. For myself, I elect (pun intended) to be a plain attendee, and I have the simplest of badges, undecorated by the "fruit salad" of ribbons I sport today.

By Saint Louis in 2006, I am comfortable enough with GA and with my grounding as a UU to agree to be a delegate. I am still a little shocked by the fact that all I need do is ask the CLF office to become one, supplying no credentials and making no promises or covenant to vote in any particular way. Note that I had met these folks exactly once, in Fort Worth. My obligation appears limited to making a report to the CLF board, which is the purpose of this very blog. Still, I remain convinced that this is a CLF aberration, and carry that illusion with me all the way to my first Plenary.

I even wrote about my discomfort with my part in this supposedly democratic process in my first post from Saint Louis, here. My naivete is also apparent in that post, wherein I speculated that "the delegates are intended to bring with them the sense of the smaller body which those delegates are to be representing. I'm sure that many congregational delegates come here already briefed on their congregations' wishes with respect to the many issues that come before the assembly."

What I have since learned, starting with St. Louis and progressing all the way to today, is that the CLF is decidedly not an aberration, at least in most respects. (It can be said, however, that generally most of our congregation does not personally know nor have personally communicated with their delegates, which is probably different from most other congregations.) Through discussion with many delegates, and direct observation of what happens in Plenary and in mini-assemblies, I can state without equivocating that many (most?) delegates are selected on the basis of (1) their ability to pay their own way to GA, (2) their ability to dedicate the time away from the rest of their lives to attend GA and (3) their own desire to attend.

Photo by A Girl And Her Camera

There are exceptions, of course. Many congregations democratically elect their delegates (although possibly only from a pool of people who can meet points 1-3 above), and many charge them with specific voting instructions. But my observation suggests this is the exception, rather than the rule.

FPTF chair Denny Davidoff (who, ironically, was the chair of the CLF BOT for most of my tenure and thus among the audience for my several reports here) drove this point home during her report in Plenary, wherein she asked for a show of hands: how many congregational delegates were fully reimbursed by their congregations to attend GA -- travel, meals, hotel and registration? How many partially reimbursed? The numbers, in a room full mostly of congregational delegates, were appallingly low. Thankfully, we did not delve into how many of those assembled knew the will of their congregations on the issues at hand.

No need, really, because the unending campaigning in the halls of the Salt Palace made that issue entirely clear. The two presidential candidates have been slated for a long time, and there have been some 22 candidates' forums around the country at the district level. To some degree, every congregation has had a chance to meet the candidates, or at least become familiar enough with their platforms, qualifications, and credentials to have discussed the matter as a congregation and provided their delegates with some direction on the matter. Yet the shear number of "uncommitted" delegates, as evidenced directly by the amount of campaigning and campaign resources, speaks otherwise -- have a look at the material Louise linked here to get a real flavor.

It is with all this as a background that I wholeheartedly endorse and support the recommendations of the FPTF, which can be found in their presentation. Specifically, moving GA to a biennial schedule, scheduling it mostly on a weekend when most working folks could attend, reducing the number of delegates to a manageable yet meaningful size, then fully funding those delegates so that congregations can elect them completely democratically, charging them with a congregational mandate -- even if that is to just "vote their conscience" as duly elected representatives.

What this means, of course, is that I am supporting putting myself out of a "job." While the final tally of elected delegates for the CLF may change somewhat from the current proposal (wherein we are allocated 4, the same as any congregation above 1,000 members, IIRC -- it's not in the presentation but was in a list of FAAQs -- Frequently Asked Anxious Questions), it is certain to be far smaller than the 22 delegates we are currently allocated. Additionally, we must, as a congregation, find some way to discuss the issues in advance of GA, and elect representative delegates to do that real work for us. It will be a "challenge" in every sense of that word.

I think it is a needed change, and, should the CLF choose to continue to send me to GA as a delegate, I pledge to work towards this goal, while ensuring fair and reasonable representation and a voice for our unique congregational makeup. Because surely we do not want to see the somewhat haphazard sort of governance which I have described (and will describe) elsewhere in this blog continue.

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