congregational life

 Contents: UU World March/April 2002
Contents: March/April 2002

General Assembly can help your congregation in myriad ways

by Donald E. Skinner

Ask one person in your congregation what General Assembly is and you may get a blank stare. Ask another and you could get a long answer about the joys of spending a week with 4,000 other Unitarian Universalists, attending workshops and worship services, jousting in the debates on social justice issues, and exploring a new city every year.

General Assembly, the annual convention and business meeting of our Unitarian Universalist Association, is a distant concept until the first time you go. Then, between the opening Banner Parade and the closing ceremony, new dimensions of Unitarian Universalism come to life. There may be only a handful of Unitarian Universalists in your hometown, but at GA there are thousands, all talking your language, all passionate about your issues. In the hotel elevators and on the streets you don't have to explain what Unitarian Universalism is. Everyone knows.

What it is

General Assembly is the Unitarian Universalist Association's annual business meeting and convention. Each summer 3,000 to 4,000 UUs attend at least part of the five-day assembly, which is held in various cities in the U.S. and Canada. It includes 300-plus workshops and daily worship services.

GA will be June 20-24 in Quebec City. It will be in Boston next year and in Long Beach, California, in 2004. Registration is $240 ($130 for people 14 to 22), plus transportation, housing, and meals.

Although the cost of airfare and lodging for five days at GA can quickly add up, registering for GA remains fairly inexpensive. Registration is up $10 since last year, but before 2000, full registration had remained constant at $195 for many years. Some congregations pay part of the cost for delegates; financial aid is also available directly from the UUA for delegates and youth. For more information, visit the General Assembly Web site at

For families attending GA, there's a daily Young Fun program for children from kindergarten through age 14. Older youth, who have attended GA in growing numbers in recent years, participate in all aspects of General Assembly, often shaping GA business through the well-organized Youth Caucus. Last year, 472 youth (ages 14 to 22) went to GA, and many stayed in special youth housing.

Registration forms will be mailed by March 1 to congregations and to those who attended GA 2001. The form will also be in UU World and on the GA Web site.

The Unitarian Universalist Church at Washington Crossing in Titusville, New Jersey, sent 17 people to General Assembly last June, about 7 percent of its membership. Howard and Leigh-Ann Bennett go almost every year. Howard is generally the one who promotes GA in his congregation — in Sunday morning announcements, newsletter articles, adult education classes, and coffee-hour conversations. "We probably bring it up 10 times during the year," he says.

Why does he go? "It's fun. Where else can I be with 4,000 UUs? We run into people we know and we always bring ideas home" — like the idea for the "caring ministry" group now in place.

Howard, the chair of Washington Crossing's religious education committee, is drawn toward religious education and UU Christian Fellowship programs at GA. Leigh-Ann seeks out earth-centered spirituality topics. Others from their delegation go for finance and music. The information they gather comes back to enrich the life of the congregation.

Diane Boulais attended her first GA last June as a delegate from the 42-member West Shore Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Ludington, Michigan, with the help of financial aid from the UUA. "I was just like a kid in a candy store," she says. "There weren't enough hours in the day." On returning home, she and other delegates presented a summer church service on their GA experience called "Bringing the Excitement Home." Boulais found Unitarian Universalism just two years ago through a world religions class, but already she's president of the congregation. GA workshops helped her learn how better to lead the congregation.

Events like General Assembly and district conferences help small isolated congregations stay linked to the larger association, says Carol Jean Larsen, president of the 48-member Bismarck-Mandan Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Bismarck, North Dakota. "Knowing there's a bigger group that's supportive of what we are doing has emboldened us out here," she said.

Several years ago a Bismarck-Mandan GA delegate brought home information on the UUA's anti-racism program, Journey Toward Wholeness. It was just what the congregation was looking for to respond to racism against Native Americans and others in its western prairie community. It inspired the congregation to form an interfaith anti-racism movement. "We definitely raised the level of understanding about racism in our community," says fellowship vice president Don Morrison.

General Assembly doesn't just bring UUs together; it's also the denomination's legislative body. Delegates from each congregation select, debate, and amend the UUA's priorities, public policy statements, and governing rules. They elect the UUA's leaders. Each year delegates also choose a social justice issue for congregations to study, launching the process that eventually leads to the UUA's official statements of conscience. GA embodies the Unitarian Universalist principle of democratic government in our larger association.

Apart from the workshops, worship services, and business meetings, the GA experience can be valuable for just talking to people. "There are a lot of non-program things that happen at GA," says Liz Jones, director of religious education at First Unitarian Universalist Church of San Diego. "There are side meetings, opportunities to do networking, to talk to UUA staff people, and a chance for lay people to talk to other lay people doing similar kinds of work."

"No matter where you live," Jones says, "you can easily feel you're struggling alone. Going to GA helps let you know there are others out there doing the same things you are."

GA is also a good place to find out about issues you know your congregation will be facing in the coming year. The co-ministers who have served First UU in San Diego for 24 years, the Rev. Carolyn Owen-Towle and the Rev. Tom Owen-Towle, will be retiring this summer, so several members went to GA last June to learn about interim ministry and the ministerial search process. In all, 20 San Diego people attended.

Even the trip to and from GA can be beneficial. Howard Bennett says people who go from Washington Crossing frequently rent vans when GA is close enough to drive: "We get the benefit of talking together in the van about church issues and about what we learned at GA. It just adds that much more to the experience."

Going to GA helped Jess Grant of the 77-member Rainier Valley UU Congregation, Seattle, put his faith in perspective.

"By going to Cleveland," he said, "I was able to step back and look at the macroscopic picture, to see where in this broad movement of ours our little congregation fits in. I came away reinvigorated by the knowledge that ours is a movement with the potential for making positive change in the world. We are powerful beyond our numbers and a social force to be reckoned with, though this is not always apparent on Sunday."

UU World XVI:2 (March/April 2002): 56-57.

UU World is the magazine of the

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