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Let's rediscover our purpose

What's the purpose of our Association? Shouldn't it trip off the tongue?
By William G. Sinkford
Spring 2007 2.15.07

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Sometimes when I preach in one of our congregations I ask people to name all seven Principles of our Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations, and I always learn something.

Here’s some good news: We’ve done a good job of teaching the Principles to our youth and young adults—if they take part, the list comes together quickly. If not, it takes a bit longer, but it gets done, and everybody enjoys the process.

And here’s some less-than-good news: Next I ask the congregation to name the Purposes of our Association. Every time, the room goes dead silent.

The Principles are in the front of Singing the Living Tradition, and in many congregations people see the Principles on the back of the order of service and on posters at coffee hour. But why are the Purposes so unfamiliar that dead silence always reigns? After all, the Purposes are our Association’s mission statement, our calling. As an association of congregations, we’re all in this together. Shouldn’t we all reflexively know our calling?

I’ve reflected on this, and I suspect one reason for the silence is that, compared with “the inherent worth and dignity of every person,” our Purposes simply do not ring with clarity. Here are the Purposes, from Section 2.2 of the Association’s bylaws:

The primary purpose of the Association is to serve the needs of its member congregations, organize new congregations, extend and strengthen Unitarian Universalist institutions and implement its principles.

Clearer language would help the staff make better decisions. But at least as important, what if the Purposes of our Association rolled off the tongues of UUs the way the First Principle does? That would mean that we all understand our Association’s calling—and what to hold ourselves accountable for. We’d work together more effectively because the point of the Association’s work would be widely understood—and Unitarian Universalism would be stronger.

I believe we need greater clarity and better language. Happily help is on the way. Our Bylaws require a review of the Purposes and Principles every fifteen years. The Commission on Appraisal, whose members are elected by congregational delegates to the General Assembly, has accepted this challenge.

As I write this, the Commission is preparing to mail booklets to our congregations that offer four formats for workshops congregations can use to join in this important work. Please take part!

It’s not the role of the Association staff to determine the Purposes or the language that describes them. The task of the staff is to deliver resources to help our congregations answer our collective calling. But the lack of clarity about our Purposes has made management decision-making more difficult: How does the staff decide to do this and not that? So a couple of years ago, with the help of our communications consultant Fred Garcia, I asked the senior staff to take a stab at new language. Here’s how we articulated the Purposes of the Association:

  • Support the health and vitality of UU congregations as they do their ministry in the community.
  • Open the doors of Unitarian Universalism to people who yearn for a liberal religious home.
  • Be a respected public voice for liberal religious values.

This language has been enormously helpful to the staff, and perhaps it can be a helpful start as the Commission on Appraisal, working with input from congregations, General Assembly delegates in Portland, and other individual UUs, looks with fresh eyes at why we come together in association and what core principles should ground our religious life together.

Please think with the Commission, and make sure they hear from your congregation. What is our calling as an Association of Congregations?

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