fifty-year vision, from the people

Gini CourterHere is my own transcript of Gini Courter’s final Moderator’s Report (cf. the UUWorld article, and the full video of Plenary IX), from GA’13. Spelling, punctuation and paragraph breaks are mine, as are any errors:

“I’m going to start my Moderator’s Report, then. <applause> Hm…aren’t you fun?

It always has readings, you know <holds up Singing the Living Tradition>. This year, it has two. The first, y’all have access to, but don’t worry—I’ll read to you.

Section C-3.1 of the UUA Bylaws, Member Congregations: ‘The Unitarian Universalist Association is a voluntary association of autonomous, self-governing member congregations, which have freely chosen to pursue common goals together.’

Our second reading, from Marge Piercy…probably the favorite reading of all Moderators, so far—at least those I speak with  and love:

‘The people I love the best

jump into work head first

without dallying in the shallows

and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.

They seem to become natives of that element,

the black sleek heads of seals

bouncing like half submerged balls.

I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,

who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,

who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,

who do what has to be done, again and again.

I want to be with people who submerge

in the task, who go into the fields to harvest

and work in a row and pass the bags along,

….who are not parlor generals and field deserters

but move in a common rhythm

when the food must come in or the fire be put out.

The work of the world is common as mud.

Botched, it smears the hands, crumbled [sic] to dust.

But the thing worth doing well done

has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.

Greek amphoras for wine or oil,

Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums

but you know they were made to be used.

The pitcher cries for water to carry

and a person for work that is real.’

Thank you, because it hasn’t ever been more real than my time with you…more real than this. <applause> I like to pride myself that one of the things that I do is speak truth to power. And so I am here to do that, today. And by ‘power’ I mean I want to speak to *you,*because our organizational form is congregational polity and you hold the power of this Association…in our congregations, in your hearts and hands. You are the powerful among us. And when you forget, things go awry. You are the power in Unitarian Universalism. And when you forget, things get broken. So I am here to speak today—my last report as Moderator to you—because it is time that I speak truth once more to power.


I’m going to talk to you about three things today. I want to talk to you about growth; I want to talk to you about inclusion; and I want to talk to you about accountability. And I think it’s important I do this because it’s possible that someone with my perspective will never again serve as a leader in the Unitarian Universalist Association. I was actually only two and a half years past our definition of ‘Young Adult’ when I was elected to your Board of Trustees. I have spent a full third of my life on the UUA Board. Eighteen years. And they have been the finest years of my life. <applause>


I think the person who will have been on the Board longest pretty soon will have been there four years at most. And that’s not a bad thing; I’m all for newness. Whoever said ‘if the world never changed, we’d still have pterodactyls’ was right. And that makes me love that sign, ‘This is a velociraptor-free workplace. It has been twelve million years since the last velociraptor incident.’ <laughter> My favorite OSHA poster from the door of the Rev. Erik Wikstrom’s office—posted at child eye level! Oh, my.


And yet, if there are things we do not change, we, too, can become the stuff of horrific reptile ancestry. We, too, can become the dinosaurs that folks ask, ‘where did they go? What did they do?’ After our actions here today, I think the one thing that’s true is they will know we did not become coal. <some laughter, applause>


And so: Before I was the Moderator of the UUA, I served our faith as Finance Chair, and I served my first eight years on the UUA Board as a member of the UUA Finance Committee. And, back in the day, when I first came on the Board, when we would meet together in General Assemblies, we would welcome ten and twelve new congregations every year. How many did we welcome this year, my friends? <’one’> Is that acceptable to you? <’no!’> It is not acceptable to me, either.


I don’t get at all curious or confused about this. When I was—and it’s not that long ago—when I was a young person in the Michigan District (now part of the Heartland, now part of the MidAmerica Region), we had not had a new congregation in 35 years, and then a group of committed ministers and lay people, working with a program at the time of the UUA called the Extension Program, applied for funds and started new congregations, and within a ten-year period created seven new full-time ministries in the state of Michigan. <applause> Seven! How many of your districts have ‘proto-congregations’ waiting to become congregations? JPD’s got—what, ten? nine? eight? We have congregations in waiting, always a bridesmaid, never a bride, scattered all over our UUA. So what’s different now?


Well, hmm. What happened was, that program was helping us create small congregations, but not large ones. And so the imagination was, maybe we could pool our resources and start large congregations. And we tried that twice, and that didn’t work. But what I know today is, that the small amount of money we spend on growth is trivial compared to what we spent eighteen years ago. And the small number of new congregations—wonderful as those folks in them may be—is trivial compared to the number of congregations that we will need in the future. <applause>


I believe that when you quit funding growth, you might stop growing. <applause> And if you disagree, then let’s at least try to fund some different things we haven’t tried. I believe that we are a faith made up of congregations of the types we have and the types we cannot yet imagine. Two years ago, this body widened the definition of ‘congregation’ We have had no new groups come to the Board and say, ‘hey, we think this might be a congregation.’ We’re looking for folks who want to mutually covenant together and be in groups. Even with the wider definition of congregations, if we are not financially supporting new starts, I believe we will continue to experience the kind of non-growth that we have now seen for about the past six years, and it is not acceptable. <applause>


It is no longer true that people don’t know who we are. I drive thirty-five minutes, one way, to church. If I head in any other direction, I drive for ninety minutes. There are people between me, and the congregation I join, and the others in every direction who deserve to have our message, and who deserve to experience our communities. I was saved by congregational life! How many of you were saved there, too? <applause> And so I believe in the importance of the Ends that your Board of Trustees developed, that include a demand that we grow the number of congregations, and that we be able to speak about growth. Please continue to support your Board of Trustees in insisting that flat growth is not acceptable for Unitarian Universalism. <applause>


And I’d like to say that this is the only place that I have seen us retreat, but it is not. And I want to tell you how this looks, okay? It’s hard for me to be here, in a way. Because I think that often, folks take a look and they say, ‘okay, there’s some disagreements around how things happen…maybe Gini doesn’t like the current President, or there’s some conflict there.’ This isn’t about any one person, or even any one administration. What’s true is our method together. So I’m here to speak truth to power, and that’s you.


Three years ago, somebody stood up around your Board table and said something that shook my world like in the way of ‘why didn’t I ever figure this out?’  And that is that you cannot have a worthy vision, a compelling vision—a salvific vision—an institution-building vision, an outreach-expanding vision, four or six years at a time. That you can have *tactics* in six-year blocks, and strategies in six-year blocks, but you cannot have a worthy vision six or four years at a time. <applause> And if you read our bylaws, and you are attentive to our history, you might realize along with me that there are really two separate kinds of visions we talk about, at least, in our faith.


The first kind of a vision is the vision that comes from the people. You heard earlier, ‘without a vision, the people perish.’ But it’s because the people aren’t visioning, not because no one gave them something. Without a vision, the people perish, because they are no longer active in their own future. You congregants—-us together-—are responsible for setting that fifty-year vision for Unitarian Universalism, with and through your Board of Trustees and your General Assembly. The long-term vision of Unitarian Universalism, what we will bend our arc towards, that is ours to set. And we have not been doing it lately. <some applause>


We believe instead that we can elect a personality–I’ve been one for us—that we can elect a Moderator or a President and let them tell us what to do. That’s not congregational polity, my friends. That is Episcopalian polity! <cheers> That’s what Catholics do! That’s what Methodists do. It’s not what Unitarian Universalists do. I am here to speak truth to power because you have power and you have not used it. And you *must* use it.


What we are supposed to be in the world—our grand experiment—is a thousand-plus points of light, now a thousand, then eleven hundred, then fifteen hundred, then two thousand, and then three thousand—arranged in communities in ways we can’t even yet imagine, each one of them visioning, and then we come here together, and we roll those visions up—and *that* is our future! That is our future. <applause> And instead, we’ve gone secular. We believe Gini’s gonna give us a vision. Or Peter. Or Bill Sinkford. Or John Buehrens, or Denny Davidoff. Or Jim Key, or Tamara Payne-Alex. No, my friends. No. The vision is right here. It’s yours to do. It’s *yours* to do!


And you do that in discernment with your UUA Board, and they’ve been working hard to make that happen. They’ve been meeting with you for six General Assemblies in a row, and out in your districts and out in congregations. And I thank heaven for Linda Laskowski, imagining twenty new ways we can connect to our congregations and our youth and our young adults, to figure out what it is we want—what it is we need, who we will be in the future. <applause>


And then your Board takes that, and it crafts it into something called ‘Ends.’ And it says, ‘this is us, for the next fifty years. This is our long-haul vision.’ Okay? And you need to participate more. How many have you read the Ends of the UUA? <hands> <need link> Everybody in the Board section [of seating]. Hello. Okay. Many people in the Staff section. Almost the whole entire Staff section. The rest of us need to, too. Because that’s the Board’s way of saying ‘we think this is what we heard. This is our vision. ‘


And then that second vision I spoke of, then, that’s the vision of the folks who are in for the short term—the Moderators, the Presidents, the Financial Advisors, us officers who you elect—who come in and go, ‘okay, that’s the vision? Cool. Let me grab my piece of that and run with it. Let me grab my piece and run with it.’ But never unclear about the direction, because it came from here, because that’s our polity, because that’s our Unitarian Universalist way in the world.


And so you in power can’t simply be satisfied by electing officers. You’ve got to advance a vision. And every time we believe that the right way to do a vision is to elect somebody new—even somebody as charming as me—to tell us what to do, we fall out of ‘our way’ and into the ways of groups like the Catholics, and the Lutherans, and everybody else who elects strong leaders to replace the authority of individual blessed congregations.


I also think this gets tied to growth, my friends. It’s because I think without a vision, the people perish, and if the people in your place aren’t dreaming, maybe then you’re not exciting enough to be with. <applause> I need you to dream. You need you to dream. Without a vision, the people perish.


So then the next piece here is that because we have been willing to accept a new vision every four years or six years or eight years or you had me for ten, because we’ve been willing to do that, we’ve been what I would call ‘unfaithful.’ And let me say more. What we say is, every six years (in our new set-up, the new Moderator will serve for six years; every four or eight years in the past), it’s okay to have a new vision. It’s just okay to do that, ‘cause we’re not doing *our* necessary visioning. So we elect a vision.


How many of you remember when we spent money on extension, on growth? <hands? Okay, well, we don’t do that. How many of you remember when we spent money on building large congregations—that was somebody else’s vision? Yep, we don’t do that. How many of you remember when we spent money on an advertising campaign called ‘Religion that puts its faith in you’? That was John Buehrens’ administration. We don’t do that anymore. How many of you remember when we placed ads in Time magazine? How many of you remember the Uncommon Denomination? How many of you remember having a Washington office that actually was in Washington office [sic], instead of an office that happened to be in Washington? How many of you remember when we supported different offices for identity-based ministries—for ministries for people of color, and… How many of you remember when we did Anti-Racism training—a lot of it? How many of you remember JUUST Change consultancies, helping congregations figure out? These are all things that have come and gone. You see my drift? They’ve come and gone. We don’t even know if they were ineffective. We just know, at the time they were undesirable. I want to say that again: we don’t even know whether or not they were effective. We just know that they weren’t what the next group of leaders wanted to do. And so, at the very time that we have finally elected administration in Washington that wants to partner with us, we close the office that teaches us how best to do that in Washington. Was it right? I don’t know! But I think we should know. I think we should know. You can’t have a worthy vision six years at a time. It’s not possible.


So who built this craziness, and who allows it to continue? Where we do one faddish thing after another, nothing ever long enough to *really* know that it didn’t work?


*We* built it. It’s in our Bylaws.


And we built it in another way.  We built it by ‘tradition.’ I wanna say, that in my opinion, for whatever it’s worth… How many of you have heard there’s been a little strife between the Administration and the Board lately? It’s not a secret. I wanna tell you why I think that’s so. I believe that after many long years of silence, and after many years of trying to do the white, middle-class, New England thing of ‘just getting’ along’, your Board of Trustees is finally doing its job. <applause> And the price they’ve paid for doing that has been heavy. Because you like them better, when they’re *not* doing their job. Because they’re asking ‘how do we know if it works?’ How do we know if it doesn’t work?


After almost four years, with the current Administration—and it could have been four years with *any* administration—let me be clear about this: Peter Morales and I were colleagues on the UUA Board together. This is painful stuff to me, too. But after four years of this administration, we finally heard the Administration say, ‘we don’t know how to measure some of these things.’ And the UUA Board of Trustees said, ‘now we hear you.’ Let’s hire a consultant to help put together plans that will work, and measurements that will work against them. Let’s help you get the answers.


And the result of that was a headline that it made it seem like the Board was spending 100,000 dollars for some purpose I can’t even imagine. But it’s a hundred thousand dollars—-big money, yes—-but it’s out of a twenty-two million dollar-a-year budget. A hundred thousand dollars not to fix or repair a relationship, but to provide skills to the Board and skills to the Administration, so we can answer the question of, before we stop one more program, might we know it doesn’t work? And before we start one more program, might we know going in what would make it successful? <applause> I don’t think that’s too much to ask! I think you should demand it! And I think when your Board delivers it up, they should not be publicly held to a ‘wow, what were they thinking’ question.


What they’re thinking is: they’re accountable to you! That’s what they think—the Board of Trustee, will you rise please? They <points> are accountable to you <points>. <applause> That’s what they’re thinking!


The hardest thing I do is not spend time with you—this is my easy work. The hardest thing that we have had to do, as a Board, for the last ten years, twenty years, thirty years…because the Board goes on and on, that’s the point of boards. I go away, but the Board rolls on. The hardest thing we have had to do, I think, is to learn how to tell the truth in a way that we could be heard. I think it’s a pretty scary thing for somebody to say ‘I voted on a hundred million dollars of expenditures, and I don’t know why we cut this program, or added that program.’ And we need to get that under control. And I think that kind of honest admission, in our culture, in our culture, that says we need help better knowing what to do. I applaud anybody who can stand up and say we need help to be more accountable to our congregations.


I know some of the people who’ve been most critical of the Board saying they want to spend that money aren’t sitting in this hall. But you will eventually run into them, and when you do, I would like you to remind them that the UUA Board of Trustees is unflagging in its devotion to the Bylaws you wrote, to the ideas of congregational polity, and they are unstinting in their affection for Unitarian Universalism and its growth. Because they’d be crazy to serve if they weren’t. You don’t pay them a penny. Not a penny. And that’s not to say that things we don’t pay for are always priceless, but in this case, they are.


I think that we have forgotten often what boards are intended to do. I hear people say, ‘you know, I’d take this to the Board, but it takes so long.’ ‘I’d take this notion to the General Assembly, but that would be a two year process.’ My friends, our Bylaws in congregations in the UUA make boards and GAs take long because that’s our value—we take our time and do it well. <applause> And so, if it takes longer to go through the Board, you might just read that Bylaw again, and wonder why we made that provision. It’s a provision against haste. And a provision against waste.


So, while we are in our waking-up state, now, all of this has been…this piece has been about accountability. Because then the Board, given its vision, that they have gotten from you, and have returned back to check with you as best they can, and you could be engaged more, to say ‘this is the vision of Unitarian Universalism over the long haul, the Board, then, is responsible under the Bylaws—the Bylaws you give us—to make sure that the resources [of] the Association are spent in the direction of that vision. And when they have done that, it has caused strife, because, believe it or not, this is the first time in fifty-two years that we’ve actually done this. Isn’t that weird? Isn’t it weird—that for the first time in 52 years, the UUA Board of Trustees is asking the kind of questions that I see congregational boards ask all the time. All the time! How many of you sit on a board in your congregation? <hands> How many of you ask what money is spent for? <hands> How many of you ask, ‘is this a good thing?’ How many of you ask why a program might be being cut? How many of you want things to be measured? And we know measurement is hard. But we also know that there are plenty of organizations that do measurement rather than talk about measurement. That do measurement rather than talking about enjoying measurement. And so your Board asks to have measurement done—and that’s a huge culture change! We went forty-nine years without asking. That’s why I can’t tell you about some of these past programs. We don’t know if they were effective. We just quit doing them…and added new ones in their place.


So the Board is the accountability link back to you. Congregations make the vision, through the General Assembly handed on to the Board, the Board gives the fifty-year vision to the Administration, that then takes it in shorter chunks, because they serve for shorter periods of time, Moderators do the same thing, they do that work, and then the GA is back again, and the Board comes back to you and says, ‘this is how we did’ and the President comes back and says ‘hey, on my chunk of the vision, that’s what we did’ and we’ve never heard that President’s report given in these halls. Because we haven’t asked for it. But that’s where we’re going. Because the vision comes from here. And when you don’t do that part, all the rest is broken. Am I describing something different than you’ve ever seen? Yes. Am I describing something different than you put in your Bylaws? No.


And so finally, one more piece. On the list of things that I asked, ‘do you remember?’ I asked ‘do you remember when we used to do a lot of anti-racism, anti-oppression training?’ And many of you remember. Do you remember when we knew that part of our job was to become the anti-racist, anti-oppressive, multicultural Unitarian Universalism that would survive, and even thrive in the future? But we’re not doing much of that right now. For example, we have a training that happens tomorrow where everybody who was elected today—-yesterday, actually—-is supposed to show up at that training. And it used to be paid for out of the UUA budget. Sometime in the last few years, we shuffled that cost off to individual committee budgets. So, one way to save money is…don’t participate. But we’ve also removed a whole raft of programs, that helped us be more anti-racist, more just. And I was here when we did it. And it’s not okay.


Best sermon of the weekend I heard was Mel Hoover, yesterday. <applause> Not to say anything negative about any other sermon I heard, but my gosh, if we’re going to be the people of promise, we better remember what we promised. If we’re going to be the people who are anti-racist, we have to help white folks like me figure that out. And if those things are important to us, then they go in the Ends of the Association we hold the Board accountable to do ‘em. Because whether or not we have programs to help people learn about how to be better in a multi-cultural world does not depend on who the Moderator is, and does not depend on who the President is. It depends on the fact that *you* want it to happen. <applause> Mel Hoover said, ‘if you want to know what an institution believes, follow the money.’ I’ve just told you things we’re not spending on. Follow the money.


And the same skills that Eboo Patel talked about we could learn inside Unitarian Universalism because *we* are multicultural and multi-faith inside our walls, too. And if we can learn that, then we can go outside but we have to invest in that, and it’s more than having him here for a Ware lecture. <applause> I want us to stand strongly behind the ministries of folks like Eboo, and Mel Hoover, and Neal Anderson, who was talking about congregationally-based community organizing, the Rev. Linda Olson-Peebles, with the group in Arlington, Virginia. I want us to support the ministry of a young African-American on the Board named Natalia Averett <sp?>, who came and spoke with you. <applause> And in order to do that, you and I need skills we didn’t walk in the door with. And I expect our faith to help us get them.


Your UUA Board is finally doing its job, after long silence—decades before some of us were even born. I need the General Assembly to wake up, too. Because without a vision, the people perish. And if you are not busy making visions, your life will be less. And so will our life together. It has been a bigger honor to do this job than I could ever have imagined. Ever, ever! There is an intimacy in this space that’s impossible. But when I walk in the door, your affection for me allows me to be this far out with you.  This is the biggest act of trust I’ve tried pulling off from up here in a long, long time <applause>


And so I want to ask you, going forward for our future…there are just a few things I would ask. Extend to the next Moderator the same trust you extended to me, my first year, so that he can have this relationship with you, too. That’s number one. You started with trust, we start with trust every time. No matter who you supported, we start in that place. I want you to extend that trust and love to President Peter Morales, as well. He deserves your love and trust. <applause> We’re all just working hard, OK? I want you to demand accountability, which you can still do when you love and trust. You can love me and trust me and still hold me accountable! You can support the Board when they hold our leaders accountable. That’s not about love and trust. That’s about accountability, which is the *basis* for love and trust. And any good leader knows that.


I need you to demand more. I need you to demand more. You don’t demand enough. I’ve been walking through the halls and people, you know, have said something they say almost every year. They go, ‘you know, you’re going to be a hard act to follow.’ And this year I realized, that’s how it should be. <applause> You deserve leaders who want to set a high bar. You had people run to be the next Moderator, who wanted to set a high bar. Yeah, I’ll be a hard act to follow. Denny Davidoff—there was a hard act to follow! <applause> Diane Olsen <sp?> was a hard act to follow. Nat Gulbrandsen was a hard act to follow. We’re *all* hard acts to follow. Peter Morales will be a hard act to follow. Bill Sinkford, a hard act to follow. John Buehrens, a hard act to follow. Just keep going. We should always be, because we should always be on our way to the next place we’re supposed to be. If we elect leaders to help us be comfortable where we are, we fall generations back with every single election. We need hard acts to follow. Because we’re a faith on the move! We’re a faith on the move, on the way to tomorrow, all the time. All the time.


So, I need you to expect more. And I need you—I desperately plead with you—to pick up your role as the visionaries for our Association. When I occasionally hear somebody explaining to me that vision comes from only one place—whether it’s the President, the Moderator or somebody else—I just say, ‘please read the Bylaws. Vision comes from our congregations.’ And then they look, and they go, ‘where is it?’ And I need you to work harder. All the time. Go back and read the Ends of the Board, if they’re what you thought they were going to be. <Pointing at the Board> They know how to get tweets now! Pound-UUABoard, pound-Ends, right? It’ll work. Tell ‘em what you think.


Be engaged in the conversation about who we are. Because being a member of this Association is not a once-every-four or –six year gig. It is a day-in and day-out membership of relationship. And so you can’t just wait ‘til you’re coming to GA to elect the next Moderator, the next President, the next Financial Advisor…you can’t wait for that! And day in and day out, year in and year out, your relationship actually is appropriately with your Board of Trustees who you elected to be you the other fifty-one weeks of the year. That’s what they do. They’re you. When we sit down at the table, when the Board sits down, I go, ‘the congregations just arrived.’ Because when I’m there alone, you’re not there yet. Much as I love ya.


So give the next leader—and the next, and the next—but particularly those with us, right now, all the affection and trust that you’ve given me. Dare to dream. Take your role in visioning. Demand more.  Trust your Board as you would your heart. They’re that good! They’re *that* good. Could I have the folks who’ll be on the Board after GA only, please stand right now? Here’s your smaller Board! Send them your love, right now. <applause> There’s your new Moderator—send him your love. <applause> There’s your new Financial Advisor, Ed Merck <sp?>, send him your love. Is Peter Morales in the hall? Peter, come here, please. And Harlan Limpert, your new COO—send them your love. <applause>


If we are to fulfill our promise, if we are to be the religion for our time—and for *all* time, for all time—you will have to learn to love in a way you have not yet learned. You will have to vision in a way you have grown unaccustomed to. And you will have to preach and demand accountability in a way that is uncomfortable. But if you can do all those things, my friends, all those things, in addition to what you do today already, there is no power, between the atom and the stars, that will slow us down.


Go well and go loved. <applause> <bow> <applause>

No comments yet to fifty-year vision, from the people

  • Ruby Allen

    I have not compared your transcript with the actual (did listen to video yesterday), but how generous of you to do a transcript and share. Thank you.

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