The Journal of the Unitarian Universalist Association

Me vs. Us:
UUs and the Democratic Process
By Warren R. Ross

July/August 1999

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A man is struggling to hang onto a guy line, desperate to keep a hot-air balloon from floating off with his child in the basket.

Five bystanders race up to help. As each one grabs another line, they manage to steady the balloon, but a sudden gust of wind lifts them all—balloon, father, rescuers, and child—off the ground. Suddenly one man lets go, and the balloon rises even higher. In a panic, the others, including the father, also drop off, all except one, who the balloon drags off to his death.

Thus starts Ian McEwan’s novel Enduring Love.

The author, speaking through the voice of his viewpoint character, one of the would-be rescuers, agonizes: “Can we accept that it was right, every man for himself? We never had that comfort, for there was a deeper covenant, ancient and automatic, written in our nature.”

In the midst of our four-year effort to examine our covenants, by means of Fulfilling the Promise program, that word has special resonance for this Unitarian Universalist reader. The cooperation required by covenant, McEwan goes on, is “the glue of our social cohesion.” But, he adds, “Letting go was in our nature too. Selfishness is also written in our hearts.”

Now isn’t that a familiar conflict?

My freedom vs. a covenant—the promise to cooperate with fellow congregation members to promote a common cause, a promise that of necessity limits my freedom—the freedom, for instance, to withhold my pledge because I don’t like the minister.

Our autonomy vs. a covenant—the congregation’s promise to join in an association that provides us with trained ministers, hymnals, religious education materials, and common strength but, again of necessity, limits our autonomy.

We UUs cite commitment to the democratic process as one of our seven basic principles, a commitment that’s based on a covenant extending back four centuries, to when the Puritans landed in New England and set up their first congregation. But if democratic process means that everyone’s in charge of him or herself and bows to no higher authority, and if a covenant is a commitment not to let go of the rope, then we’re living, if not with a contradiction, at least with a tension worth examining.

Snakes and butterflies
Sometimes new religious denominations are like snakes that have shed their skin only to emerge as replicas of what has gone before. Thus when Henry VIII rejected the pope’s authority, not much changed for his subjects except the head of the church. But sometimes new faiths are like butterflies that differ radically from the pupae from which they burst forth. Thus, the Puritans who settled in New England found themselves—for both theological and practical reasons—rejecting the authority of both bishops and the ministerial councils called presbyteries. After all, when you are gathered in a small congregation, hours by horseback from any other and weeks by ship from any higher authority, you are not only free but virtually compelled to govern yourself. 

Scholars have come to call the Puritans’ church self-government congregational polity. And when most Puritan congregations emerged from their chrysalis as Unitarian, and eventually Unitarian Universalist, societies, they and newer congregations that modeled themselves after them maintained this basic principle of self-government. When they joined with the Universalist Church of America (which did not have such a strong congregational tradition) to form the Unitarian Universalist Association, they wrote into their bylaws that the UUA would be “a voluntary association of autonomous, self-governing local churches and fellowships,” as opposed to a higher authority. In so doing, the UU congregations were reaffirming a decision of their Puritan progenitors, who in their Cambridge Platform spelled out how they’d “resolve issues of conflict and discipline.” Jealous of their independence, they did not establish a supervisory authority but instead agreed to meet in conferences where decisions would be arrived at by persuasion and reasoned discussion.

New England Puritan government was hardly tolerant and democratic, as Baptist Anne Hutchinson and other dissenters such as the Quakers of Dartmouth found out, but by relying on discussion and persuasion to govern their relationships, they planted the seed. Fast forward to our denominational Principles and Purposes, which say: “We, the member Congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote” seven basic principles, of which the fifth is “the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process…”

UUs on Democracy

“It was we, the people; not we, the white male citizens; nor yet we, the male citizens; but we, the whole people, who formed the union.”

The status quo
As a result of our glorious tradition, then, democratic procedure in our denomination is alive and well. Right? It most certainly is alive, but not everyone agrees about how healthy it is on all three levels of our denominational life—the local congregations, the districts, and the UUA at large. Let’s take a look at all three. 

The ultimate authority in each of our member societies is the congregational meeting, where everyone who has met the criteria for membership—usually no more than signing a book and being old enough—has one vote. Like the New England town meeting, that’s the ideal of direct democracy. But what happens if nobody shows up? Well, “nobody” is an exaggeration. Sometimes only a handful come, barely a quorum. What’s more, before the meeting is over, some of the attendees may drift away.

That’s all right, say the optimists. Those who care enough to come get a chance to vote; the others have forfeited their right to have a say. But suppose (and this is not a purely hypothetical case) a new minister who is not sincere about being a Unitarian Universalist makes a deliberate effort to attract new members who share his evangelical Christian beliefs and, at a meeting attended by few longtime members, they vote to take over the board, the building, and the assets. That, after all, is their democratic right.

This raises the question of how to protect a congregation against misuse of democratic procedure. Probably the most important safeguard is spelling out procedures for dealing with conflict in the bylaws and then following them. Helen Bishop, the Central Midwest district executive, has some advice. “What we used to mean by democratic process was the use of Robert’s Rules of Order as the mechanism for running meetings. But when feminism began to take off, women expressed a concern that these rules can be a potent tool to silence minorities. So we switched to what some call ‘Roberta’s Rules,’ which rely more on consensus than up-or-down votes. But one thing we rarely discuss in our congregations is the costs and benefits of any decision-making model, and the cost of the consensus model is that it is extraordinarily time-consuming and permits the most long-winded speaker to carry the day.” In fact, Bishop says, she knows of situations where controversial issues have been debated until, literally, the opponents died. 

The pendulum, she says, swings back and forth, and many congregations don’t strictly follow either Robert’s Rules or the consensus process—often in violation of their own bylaws. Such vagueness may cause trouble in really contentious situations, in that any aggrieved person can come along later and legally challenge a decision. Thus Bishop warns that although “really ugly situations are fortunately rare, we still shouldn’t depend on luck.” Instead, we should carefully consider what procedures we want to use and make sure they’re reflected in our bylaws. That way, we can best assure that we reach the ideal, which she defines as a situation “where minority voices can be heard but where the good of the institution supersedes the needs of any one individual.”

UUs on Democracy

“Democracy means not ‘I am as good as you are,’ but ‘you are as good as I am.’”

Minority rule by default
Which raises the question of how easy it is for minority voices to be heard in our congregations and our association. Virginia Courter, the UUA trustee representing the Michigan and Ohio Valley Districts, says, “Our system is such that a small group of committed people who want to make a change can do so.” Indeed, the Rev. David Herndon, minister of the First Unitarian Church of Pittsburgh, PA, argues that “if anything, people who represent issues at the margins of our denomination have a disproportionate amount of influence compared to those who are more mainstream.” 

Clearly, democratic process can work only if the leadership, while giving everyone a chance to be heard, also sees to it that respect for minorities doesn’t lead to deadlock. The experience of two congregations illustrates the importance of leadership. 

In Summit, NJ, a proposal to change the name of the church from “Unitarian” to “Unitarian Universalist” had been thoroughly discussed but was stopped dead at the congregational meeting when a few members spoke against it, and no one insisted on majority rule, recalls Metro New York district executive Howell Lind. The Rev. Gretchen Woods had a similar experience in Reston, VA, where she is minister of the UU church. A board proposal to switch to two Sunday services had been given ample notice in both pulpit and newsletter announcements, but at the congregational meeting a single senior member said he hadn’t heard about it and he opposed it. In deference to a single voice, no vote was taken.

“We claim to be democratic,” Woods comments, “but we tend to give our power away. It’s a sad commentary on our fear of power.”

Yet both congregations later made other major decisions: in Summit to undertake a building program that had been stalled for 26 years and in Reston to adopt a mission statement that included such highly charged words as “grace.” The difference in both cases was leadership and good communication, including a concerted effort to involve the members before they were asked to vote. “There was maximum congregational participation,” Woods explains. “The entire process took three months, and there was considerable controversy, so there was no problem getting a quorum. And because everyone was engaged, everyone was ready to vote.”

Insisting on a vote undoubtedly gets you from debate to action, but it can also trigger crises. That’s why the Rev. Patricia Carol, Joseph Priestley District consultant, stresses that sometimes it’s preferable to avoid voting. “Sometimes democratic procedure should be a last resort,” she says. For example, she says, ministers almost always get mixed reviews from their congregations, and if forced to vote, a disaffected minority that has been content to disagree in silence may feel compelled to go on record, leading to a nasty split.

In other words, in our congregations, unlike the secular political world, the objective of democracy is not to win elections but to build a strong religious community. As the Rev. Alice Blair Wesley, a retired minister who has published on this subject, puts it, “The democratic process in our congregations has to be seen in the context of our covenant”—that is, “our pledge to walk together.”

UUs on Democracy

“All members of every Community shall stand on a footing of personal equality; irrespective of sex, color, occupation, wealth, rank, or any other natural or adventitious peculiarity.”

—Adin Ballou
from the 1841 constitution for Hopedale, a utopian community in Massachusetts

The other covenant
Which gets us to another covenant, the one that makes the UUA an “association of congregations,” to call it by its full name. All congregations agree to this covenant when they join the association. It entitles them to the rights of membership—and sets limits to their autonomy.

Recently, for instance, my home congregation needed an interim minister. Turning to the UUA for help, we got the names of three potential candidates and picked one who became so popular that some members wanted to keep him on permanently. But under rules we had agreed to when we accepted him as an interim, he couldn’t be a candidate for the permanent position, even though that made some of our members angry. So is the congregation totally self-governing? As in so many things in life, the answer is “yes, but.” Covenants set limits and impose obligations.

“Yes, but” is the answer to another question, too: Is our present district structure truly democratic? The question has great importance for the functioning of the UUA as a whole because districts elect 20 out of 25 members of the UUA Board of Trustees.

As Virginia Courter says, this system has a few drawbacks. First, while it strengthens ties between congregations and the UUA, it means “we have chosen to be geographically diverse rather than diverse in other ways—such as race, culture, and age,” she says. Take age. Since it takes time to become known in a district by working one’s way up to district leadership and then to get elected UUA trustee, the average age of board members is far older than the people we hope to attract as new members.

Courter also questions the size of the UUA board called for by district representation, which some have called unwieldy. “What to me defines democracy,” she says, “is not whether I elect one of 20 district trustees or one of seven. What matters is that I can elect good people who are committed to hearing what our congregations have to say.”

The board’s presiding officer, UUA Moderator Denise Davidoff, recalls that when the question of a smaller board was raised in 1991, the board wouldn’t even discuss the issue. “Everyone was outraged,” she recalls. Now she reports that several board members think the board is too large by at least half. “Twenty-six people can’t do anything,” says Davidoff. “That’s a legislature, not a board.” In this connection she points out that at this year’s General Assembly a full day has been set aside for a summit meeting of district officers, UUA trustees, representatives of the UU Ministers’ Association, the Liberal Religious Educators’ Association, and chairs of major UUA committees to discuss whether—and if so how—to change district structure and representation.

One member, one vote?
One of the most ticklish subjects at the summit meeting will undoubtedly be the great discrepancy in the UU population of the districts. 

“District representation on the UUA board is not equitable,” says June Gillespie, the board member representing the Metropolitan New York district and a member of the task force planning the Salt Lake City conference. “This means not only that districts don’t get equal representation but they also don’t get equal treatment in the delivery of services.” Both matters will be taken up at the summit meeting. Gillespie, one of those who thinks the UUA board is too large, adds, “Doing away with district representation on the UUA board wouldn’t upset me terribly, so long as there is still a structure—maybe a district council—to make sure that local concerns and initiatives are heard.” 

UUs on Democracy

“We can never make the world safe for democracy by fighting.”

—Olympia Brown

How democratic is GA?
If we’re going to discuss how fairly members and congregations are represented in the UUA, we also need to look at General Assemblies. GAs elect the association’s officers, adopt bylaws, and take up “Statements of Conscience” on social justice matters. Indeed, according to the bylaws, it is at General Assembly that we “make overall policy for carrying out the purposes of the association and . . . direct and control its affairs.”

On the surface, this is a thoroughly democratic process since each member society gets to elect a delegation proportioned to its size in accordance with its own bylaws and procedures. But only about half of member societies manage to send delegates to most GAs, and not all those societies fill their allotted quota.

Another frequently voiced objection is that the delegates who do show up aren’t truly representative. To be able to attend a long and often distant meeting, you need time (which may rule out parents of young children) and money (unless your congregation helps pay the not inconsiderable expenses). Davidoff, who presides over the General Assembly as well as the board, says she senses a “disconnect” between the people “purportedly representing our congregations and those who complain about the lack of democratic representation at GA. There is nothing wrong with the process. The system isn’t broken, but people aren’t using it right. The fault lies with the congregations that covenant to abide by the UUA bylaws but do not exercise the rights and obligations which they have covenanted to observe. In other words, if GAs aren’t democratic it’s because some congregations—often the very ones that complain—aren’t paying attention. So when people say: ‘Why don’t the people in charge fix the General Assembly,’ my answer is: ‘You are the people in charge. Why don’t you introduce a bylaw amendment? I would be thrilled if proposals to improve the system were brought to the floor.’ And I never get an answer.”

It may not even take that; it may simply be a matter of requiring that congregations elect their delegates rather than ask for volunteers. When congregations in her districts complain about GA to Virginia Courter, she asks them: “What have you done to make it more representative? You could offer to pay the expenses of your delegates and then tell the people who’ve been going right along, ‘We know you want to go and can afford to go, but we want to be able to vote for people whether they can afford it or not—especially people who haven’t gone before.’”

At June’s GA, delegates voted on a UUA board-proposed bylaw change that would increase the number of delegates congregations may send, so that even the smallest societies can send two, instead of one as at present. The board reasons that people feel more comfortable going to GA with someone they know rather than alone. To keep things in balance, larger congregations would also be entitled to more delegates. A reform proposed by the Commission on Appraisal in its 1997 report Interdependence: Renewing Congregational Polity is to make amending the UUA bylaws a two-year process, leaving a year for local discussion. The commission also wants GAs to allow absentee voting on resolutions (as they now do for election of officers), so that no one is disenfranchised by not being represented by live bodies.

Biennials: back to the future
An equally radical proposal is to hold GAs only every other year, a popular notion in the early days of the UUA. Cutting the number of GAs in half, the rationale went, would help local societies bear the cost of being represented and save the association money. Time after time, this bylaw change appeared on the GA agenda, and time after time, it was voted down. Finally, the proposal’s supporters gave up.

But suddenly, according to Davidoff, the issue has come alive again. Much of the impetus, she says, came from the 1993 presidential election. Both candidates—the Rev. Carolyn Owen-Towle and the Rev. John Buehrens—felt the campaign system was “awful,” Davidoff says. Following precedent, both tried to attend a meeting in every district at least once—a punishing schedule for the candidates and so time-consuming that the only people who can run are parish ministers from congregations large enough to afford coministries and a sizable staff.

If we went to biennial GAs, however, and in alternate years held six or so multi-district regional meetings, “we could tremendously broaden participation in the workings of the association,” Davidoff says. “Lots of people who find it difficult to get to a GA far from home might be able to attend a regional meeting, and candidates could attend them all with only six trips.”

It will only happen, she continues, if there is enough local interest and energy to put it on the GA agenda and work for its adoption. “Sure,” she says, “the board could put it on the agenda, but then everyone would scream ‘top-down,’ and it would die.”

UUs on Democracy

 “There cannot be a greater absurdity than to suppose that the happiness of a whole nation should be sacrificed to that of any individuals.”

The view from the old boxes
Are we really that suspicious of authority? Helen Bishop seems to think so. She says, “We are so fiercely individualist that any recommendation from Boston or from field staff or even from a neighboring congregation can trigger accusations that someone is ‘trying to tell us what to do.’” Virginia Courter adds that “Sometimes there’s a perception—a suspicion, a paranoia—about how fair and open the [UUA governance] processes are.” Basically,  she concludes, “I think we do a pretty good job.”

David Herndon argues that democracy works differently depending on the size of the decision-making body. In committee work or even in relatively small congregations, he says, decisions can be made by consensus, though “even there, not everyone needs to decide what brand of paper towels to use.” As congregations grow, they often feel uncomfortable with the need to delegate, “to trust boards, committees, and staff to make appropriate decisions,” he says. And when you get to an even larger scale—the governance of the UUA, for instance—trust becomes an even more critical factor and is best built by networks of personal relationships, “so that trust can be built with people you have met,” he says. That’s one of the benefits of General Assemblies—a benefit that would be multiplied by the proposed regional conferences. 

Oddly, technology—in the form of UU Internet chat rooms and websites—may also come to our aid. Never since the days of the historic “neighborhood of Boston” has it been so easy to trade ideas (or criticisms) with fellow ministers or lay leaders; never have there been so many spontaneous networks not beholden to any organizational structure; so readily accessible even to people tied down by small kids, jobs, tight budgets, or restricted mobility. It may be naive to think that computer technology will build trust, but it will surely help keep the pot bubbling. 

As for our ongoing debates over democracy in our congregations, districts, and association the only safe prediction about the outcome is that the more cooks stir the stew, the more likely it is to be nourishing.

Warren R. Ross is contributing editor of the World.

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