Tuesday, July 31, 2012

What the UUA Really Needs

Recently, I’ve found myself caught between a rock and a hard place. The “rock” is my commitment to Unitarian Universalism, or at least the vision of what it can and should be. I’ve worked hard for my home congregation, and beyond it, to spread the good news. I can give examples of our progressive faith at its best.

Then we have the “hard place” – the list of times I’ve heard of and personally seen where those entrusted with authority have failed to live up to those ideals. I’ve seen the annual meetings of my district turn less and less into opportunities to learn from one another, and more into cheerleading sessions as the delegates are asked to rubber stamp reports while we are given fewer avenues to ask questions or propose changes.

I’ve had to hear sickening stories of other kinky UUs being maliciously outed and falsely accused, hauled in front of “safe congregation” committees and being forced to choose between fighting an exhausting battle or leaving their spiritual home.

I’ve seen the UUA staff reorganize in ways I cannot understand, while still failing to address some rather obvious needs, or failing to implement other changes that were recommended after months of hard work assessing the needs of our movement.

Just recently, I’ve heard from another UU blogger who was part of a mass walkout from his last congregation.

When I’ve shared the highlights of these stories with other UUs, more and more I’m hearing the same refrain: “Yeah, me too. I’ve noticed … ”

The list goes on and on – but that’s not the most disturbing part.

What bothers me most is how UUA staff and leadership seem to respond. Often it is a strict hands-off policy. “We are an association of congregations,” folks are reminded, “and there’s only so much we can do.” Or, more recently: “Policy governance precludes me from acting on this matter,” sometimes followed with a suggestion of where to go, and many times with no such suggestion.

Have our leaders forgotten that we’re not just congregations, or districts, or policies, or any of the organizational structures that we and those before us have built? We are people, first and foremost – people with gifts, with questions, with worries and with pain. None of our congregations, and none of what we have built, would exist without people. And the reason why organizations exist is not merely to perpetuate themselves, but to serve the needs of the people who built them.

So, where can individuals go when the system fails them? I’ve looked high and low, I’ve asked around, and frankly there doesn’t seem to be any place like that. How many of the roughly 420,000 people who identify as Unitarian Universalist, yet who are not members of any congregation, have in fact walked out because we failed them?

Many institutions have adopted an answer to this problem: They appoint one or more people as ombuds, to serve as advocates on behalf of individuals who would otherwise become lost in a bureaucratic maze. Their job, very simply, is to assure best practices and make sure a government or other body fulfills its vision and mission of serving its constituents, and never putting any one piece of the organizational puzzle above that.

The UUA needs an ombuds. We need someone who can cut through the red tape, listen and respond effectively to individuals, and hold us all to account. We need someone who takes seriously that every soul who comes through our door is important to us. We need someone who reminds us that organizations are not meant to be ends in themselves. We need someone who, even when we can’t solve a particular problem, can at least give us reason to say with all honesty: “We did our very best.”

This is what the UUA really needs. I just hope its leaders are listening.